Sunday, December 28, 2014

Bliss

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

Liftoff!

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.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Beaches, Man

 
Every rider has a fantasy about riding on the beach. It sometimes involves a white horse, no saddle, endless stretches of pristine sand and galloping. Lots of galloping. It does not involve getting up at six AM hooking up a horse trailer, checking hay bags, finding the right parking lot, dealing with freezing wind and wondering if the bath house is open in November because you really have to pee and you have a horse with you and you're in public and there are strangers around, but you're sort of in the middle of nowhere.

I managed to knock Taking the Horse to the Beach off of my bucket list last weekend. It is a logistical tapdance, but well worth it. Salisbury Beach on the North Shore is a state DCR beach and is free during the winter, unlike Cranes Beach which charges a minimum of $150 for a horse trailer permit.  However Salisbury Beach has about 2000 yards of pristine beach followed by endless developments. So it feels a but cramped. Hundreds of little houses but right up against the beach.

The first time I do anything truly new with my horse, I find myself fraught with worry about the whole endeavor.  I haven't done it so I can't contingency plan for what *might* go wrong in my head. (Why, YES, I AM insane, glad you asked!!) I usually don't sleep much the night before. Going to the beach was no exception.

We led the horses down to check out the water first. Cassel was really surprised by the waves and actually pulled the lead rope out of my hand the first time the surf hit his feet. He bolted a few feet and then he started to do this little mosey. "I'm free, and I don't know what to do with myself."

I just crinkled a peppermint wrapper and he steppe on the lead rope and waited patiently for me to come and get him.

The most surprising part of the day was when we were riding down the shore, I gave him his head and he chose to go down to the water where his buddy (an experienced beach horse) was walking. Every time the surf hit his feet he would snort and dance, but he didn't do anything scary or dangerous. The tide was on its way in and when a big wave buried his feet up to his hocks he planted his feet and leaned into the horse next to him until the waves receded. After that he was done walking in the water.

The sand was really deep and soft. So there was no galloping along the beach. We were not leaving the beach with a suspensory injury. Our hair didn't stream out behind us thanks to our ASTM helmets and our winter clothes didn't flow gracefully in the breeze.

But it was a beach. And there were horses. And I was there.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Gabby Giffords Lesson Day

Just a short post today. Cassel did gymnastics for the first time. I did gymastics for the first time -- Since College! WHEE! It was so freaking fun. I love riding lessons. Do not attempt this at home folks. You need a trained professional at your side to set the jumps and yell "Hips back!!!"

Twenty some years after a rumpled face fifty something British riding instructor stamped her feet and told me I was jumping wrong, I finally understand what she was inarticulately shouting at me. I suppose she must have been making some sense if I remember it this long. It's mostly a series of still photos in my head. Of how the other riders jumped and she said now YOU JUMP LIKE THEM NOW. I kind of understood WHAT she wanted me to do, but you can't just tell somebody who's been taking riding lessons for 12 years that everything they know about jumping is WRONG without telling them what's wrong with it. She was right, my jumping basics were wrong. (For jumpers) I need to release the horses mouth, not by pushing my hands and upper body forward, but by pushing my hips back. This, my dear muscles is a lot for your 44 year old selves to relearn and memorize after all these years. But the photo on your left is actual evidence that it can be done, every 12th jump or so. The image on the right here is the jump before the oxer. This is what I'm trying to UNDO.

Here's the videos of the gymanstics Three bounces and a one stride to an oxer. Each element was added one at a time. Every time an element was added, he ducked out the first time. Even though I was kind of expecting it. Great riding there!!


video 

Turn the sound off on this second one. You'll thank  me later. You're welcome!

video


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Did I tell you about the time my truck wouldn't start? Or the other time my truck wouldn't start?

The original beautiful '89 Kingston
My adventures with trailering began with a traditional rig. I had this very nice Kingston TB Deluxe with a dressing room. The ramp had been replaced and it was generally a very nice trailer.

My dad and I shared a Chevy diesel 2500 from 1998. We bought off a guy out in Central Mass who had owned it for about five years. During that time he had Never Cleaned It. And he smoked.

We scraped about six inches of grime and what looked like used toilet paper out of the cab and eventually after we bought stock in the scented Christmas Tree Company the cigarette smell dissipated. We ended up putting new brakes (front and back) and a bunch of other stuff I don't remember.

But it JUST kept breaking down on me. Once on my street in Somerville. I had it parked the wrong way on my street so I could move cars quickly around in my driveway so I could back it into my driveway, in front of the garage, JUST SO. My Honda needed to be PARKED in the garage for this configuration to work. Honda moved and... It would not start. The Somerville Police do NOT take kindly to vehicles parking the WRONG WAY on a two way street. Somehow, it's akin to dealing crack at the elementary school. That time it turned out to be the starter.

Once when I was pulling the (thankfully horseless) trailer from Western MA to the 'burbs where the horse was the alternator gauge that tells your your battery is charging correctly started listing to the left... And listing to the left. I am constantly checking my dash and I spotted it right away and pulled into a gas station in Gill and called US Rider (and my Dad. Well it's HIS truck too, dammit!) That time it was a rotten cable as well. US Rider managed to find some guys working at a body shop in Gill on a Sunday who came out in like two minutes and they got me up and running again. Unfortunately they only fixed the cable to the alternator. We didn't realize the rest of them might be rotting as well.

A few months later I had it parked illegally when I was picking up furniture in Cambridge... it would not start. The poor furniture guys (who had instructed me to park there) were completely freaking out. The doorman from the Fancy Condo who's driveway we were NOT actually blocking, but we were definitely harshing their aesthetic mellow and bringing down their property values was threatening to have the truck impounded by "HIS" tow company. This time, US Rider sent some idiot with a Honda to try to jumpstart it instead of a tow truck, so we had to wait twice. Really, they sent a guy in a Honda Civic to jumpstart a Chevy 3/4 ton truck. I told them it wasn't the batteries. Those were relatively new and high quality. It turned out it the battery CABLES had rotted through and weren't connecting properly.

These things were annoying, but they weren't dangerous. Until the last time I drove it.

The last and final time I drove it, the truck accelerated on me and I was done. I have not driven it since. I was on my wait to pick up Cassel to take him to Great Brook and chatting to my mom on my cell when the engine revved and the truck lurched and I slammed on the brake and it fought me, as if it WANTED to hit the bumper of the Kia in front of us. I pulled it over and called US Rider. We took it to Mirak Chevrolet. After it had sat for the requisite week, they told us it was the diesel injectors. Now, I'm not a diesel mechanic, but I'm told by people much more car savvy than myself that the diesel injectors going bad would NOT cause the truck to accelerate like that. Ever. By the time it got to Mirak it wasn't running at all, so who knows how they diagnose these things, but I know for a fact the hotshot Chevy diesel mechanic was dead wrong.

However, there is a part called a PMD controller which has gone bad on almost every truck that Chevy made in 1998. They had a tendency to overheat due to their inexplicable placement in the hottest part of the engine. THAT would (and did) make the truck accelerate. So, instead of junking the truck or paying Mirak $5000 for a solution that would not have fixed the problem, we had the truck towed to my driveway in Melrose. My dad replaced and relocated the PMD controller and a few gaskets and it has run like a dream ever since.

I still won't drive it. (Nor will I get my Hyundai Santa Fe serviced at Mirak, the closest and most convenient Hyundai dealer to me).

Given what a flakey vehicle I was driving, some of my thudding terror over moving my horse may have been somewhat justified. So I decided that I was going to change things around. Even if the truck had been an awesome vehicle that trusted and loved driving, it was still hard to coordinate. The truck lived in Shelburne Falls, the trailer lived with my horse in Carlisle. Every trip needed to be planned a couple weeks in advance. My folks were constantly going back and forth between Western and Eastern MA, so it wasn't too much of a stretch, but it wasn't easy on anyone.

So I had to make a change and shake things up. But that is fodder for a subsequent post.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Don't you know how to ride? Why are you taking lessons?

Somebody on the Equinesite Bulletin Board was wondering what the value was in becoming a Massachusetts licensed instructor. The exam is notoriously simple and you need a licensed instructor to sign off that you have done a certain number of "apprentice hours" that nobody from the state ever verifies. Nor is the instructor who signs off on your "apprenticeship" responsible for you in any way once you become an instructor. You know those signs you see in EVERY barn in Massachusetts?
You can order these for any state. They hang prominently in every barn I've ever walked into. Passing that test makes you a majikal "Equine Professional."

When I was 20 and life was so simple, I did a British Horse Society course in England for my Junior Semester Abroad. Here I am during that time with the fancy horse I took care of. His name was Colby.










I actually never rode Colby, but I did get to ride a lot of other nice horses and jump some big jumps. But in spite of the years long British Horse Society certification process for riding instructors, I never had a decent riding lesson during the three months I was there. I took two lessons a day with probably about six or seven different "I" certified instructors and not a single one of them knew how to communicate any of the thousand complex nuances you need to know to go from being an "OK" rider to a "Good" or even a "Great" rider. These women could Not Teach At All. They babysat. Or they tried to actually tell you what to do, were so autocratic in their style that questions were beneath them. If you did not understand, you were a worm and beneath their contempt. It was YOUR fault because YOU were stupid and ignorant. It was not because they were vague and incoherent. I was 20 years old and being a great rider was my dearest ambition. I was finally in a position to "catch up" and make up for the fact that I stopped riding in high school and my lessons were being with the empathy and tact of  Edwina and Patsy.

Typical Group Lesson: Form  a "Ride" (All horses 1 horse length apart. A mini parade in the Indoor Arena!!) Ride in figures around half the arena. Trot, walk, change direction. Spiral in, leg yield out (which I had NO idea how to do. The answer? "Use your legs!") Horse in front, canter to the end of the ride. Repeat. Absolutely no individual feedback from the instructor.

Or, they would demand you do things you didn't know how to do and SCREAM at you when you couldn't do them. (Because you weren't "using your legs.")

Halfway through the program the house burned down.

I'd had enough by then. They put us in 'port-o-cabins' -- usually meant to be offices on construction sites. Flimsy portable structures that bent in the breeze with even flimsier Ikea furniture that broke when you sat on it. I went into London for the weekend to stay with a friend in theater program and never went back.

I know and knew then what good teaching looks and feels like and this wasn't it. Great teachers can keep breaking things down and simplifying them until you get them. I did need to "use my legs" back then. I remember squeezing the horse so hard, it's a wonder he didn't keel over. I just didn't know WTF she was talking about. I was using my legs! It was causing me and probably the horse a good deal of pain and was yielding literally no result. What I didn't know was where or when to use them, or how to time where and when I used them with how I used my hands. And they were utterly useless at explaining the nuance of these things.

Great teachers don't lose their shit at you for asking questions. I know some very respected clinicians don't like client backtalk. When they ask you to do something very specific, they don't want to hear "Well I do it this way because...." I can see it both ways there. A clinic is usually a one time shot. A different perspective on what you're doing. Just TRY it their way and quit your yapping. That's what you're paying the (usually) big bucks for. Whereas you really should be able to ask your regular teacher all the questions you want when you don't get WTF she's saying.

When I went to England I had always jumped like an eq rider. Which is a bit more up the neck than the Brits do. NOW I know what they were trying to teach me and why, but at the time we were like "Why are you putting me in this weird chair seat behind the motion?" (Because that's what it felt like). It made no sense because we had no context for it. It's a much more defensive seat than what I was used to. But I didn't even know that. There was no Denny Emerson's Facebook page to explain about correct leg position back in 1990. I'd never seen a video of me jumping up my horse's neck. I had no freaking idea I had been doing it "wrong" or that it might be unsafe when I got to bigger jumps. This is something I struggle with to this day.

When I asked the instructor to explain the difference between what I was doing and what she wanted me to do she literally lost her shit at my impertinence. She stamped her feet and her slab of a ruddy face turned beet red. The American style was irrelevant. Nothing I knew mattered. Now get in the damned chair seat whether you understand the mechanics of it or not.

I don't put up with that crap now. I took a lesson with a Big Name Dressage Trainer through NEDA's flextime program and I learned something. But she was mean. She was sarcastic and rudeand she's the only trainer I've worked with that didn't love Cassel on the spot. I don't expect people to love me. But he is absolutely the sweetest, most trying horse in the world. Everybody loves him. I left the lesson fairly elated because I had learned something. I felt something that I hadn't felt before. But as time went on, I got more and more annoyed. I'm too old to put up with that crap. I have no great competition ambitions. I still want to be a great rider someday. But there are so many great dressage instructors like Leslie Kornfeld that can break down what you're doing with your body inch by inch, almost millimeter by millimeter. And if you listen and keep trying you can affect such positive changes without feeling like a sack o' crap at the end of the day. And that folks is what we should be paying for.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Trailering: A tale of 3 Epiphainies

My limited horsey childhood had one gaping knowledge hole. I knew how to tack up a horse and cool it down. I will never be a trainer, but  I am a decent, competent rider. I always had a good grasp of horse care and feed, basic first aid. I knew how to bandage and wrap legs. (something I never bother with now). I have a good instinct for what to do when things go wrong, both on the ground and under saddle. I know when to end on a good note and when to push for more. Especially with this horse.

But at the age of 40, I had never loaded a horse in a trailer. I had never hitched up, driven or parked a horse trailer. I think I had maybe ridden in a truck with a trailer behind it all of once. I knew I "needed" one. (Like the hole in the head this whole horse adventure is, right)? So when I saw a late 1980's Kingston with a dressing room for a great price out in Groton, I jumped on it even though I didn't even have the right truck yet.

The trailer was a gem. It was in great shape for what I paid. My father fixed it up for me. It needed simple things like a need floor board, and a new stall divider. I had it blessed as road worthy by the good folks at Orchard Trailers in Whately.  We eventually purchased a 1998 Chevy 2500 diesel truck to tow it with.

(Ultimately, this is not the rig I ended up with, but that is a story for another blog post.) So we were good to go right? Trail Rides! Horse Shows! Clinics! Here we come!! Let's ride! Or not... What I didn't anticipate was this uncontrolled feeling of dread and terror EVERY SINGLE TIME I trailered my horse. I honestly felt like I was going crazy. My heart would start to pound, my chest would get hot and I'd feel this zing up my spine like something really bad was about to happen. I generally don't live in a state of uncontrolled anxiety and dread. So, this was new. I am a control freak in may ways and so much of trailering felt out of my control. Like What if He Decides NOT to get on the trailer? I had no tools to fix it and I knew it. What if the truck breaks down and I have to put him on SOMEBODY ELSE'S TRAILER and I CAN'T??

So at some point, horses, being the sensitive creatures that they are pick up on your anxiety and Cassel decided to stop loading. My plan was that the anxiety would go away with practice, but it wasn't. I came to the conclusion that we needed Help.

First I took him to Wendy Warner. Thank God my dad came with me because my damn GPS got me so lost on the way there. I think I'd still be pulled over by the side of a dirt road in Warwick crying trying to turn the rig around. Did I mention I'm in my 40's???? I love my dad.

I had planned on going to Wendy to do some obstacle work. I didn't know how to teach him how to go over bridges. I didn't want to fight about it and I didn't want to screw anything up. But dammit, I wanted to trail ride! And to trail ride, your horse needs to cross bridges. Wendy does a lot of ground work.

She helped with the bridges using a flag, and got him over a wooden teeter totter. (After that, he'll cross anything --resentfully sometimes, but he'll cross) And she loaded him onto her trailer and mine using the flag. Adding pressure and releasing it with perfect timing. But I just didn't "get" what she was doing. My stomach was in knots knowing in a few days I'd be on my own. I'd HAVE to get him on the trailer to bring him home from our family farm in Western MA. There was work and school the next day. He had to go back to his boarding barn.

By this time, he was loading OK in my Kingston, but I knew I couldn't load him into somebody else's trailer. I still needed some Help.

So I called in the Big Guns. I had Cathie Hatrick Anderson from Bobcat Farm come teach me how to load my horse. That was the first turning point. Cassel knew how to load in a trailer. I need to be trained on how to load a horse properly and get over my mental psychotic garbage. I had issues. She looked at me funny a few times during the process probably wondering what she was doing with such a well mannered gelding.

Cathie loads with a rubber handled lunge whip, and a rubber handled crop and uses both sides depending on the situation. We did a bunch of ground work first and made sure that Cassel would turn right with a visual cue. (He needed to learn this). She solved what few leading problems he had and we loaded him on to my trailer and another boarder's trailer on the property.

The second epiphany occurred at a Greg Eliel clinic in Lancaster in June of 2013. There was this little buckskin mare at the clinic. She was opinionated as Hell. After lunch on the second day everybody went outside to see Greg load the mare. She was in a rope halter with a long thick lead. Greg stood with the mare in front of an almost new step up slant trailer. And he took the rope and twirled it at her flank. Tap. Tap. Tap. The mare reared -- not high, just enough to show she was pissed. She snorted. She danced. She sweated. She. Was. Pissed. About five minutes later she put her nose in the trailer and gave it a good sniff. The rope came off and the pressure stopped praise and petting were administered. Keep in mind that Greg can tie a knot in a lead rope with a flick of his wrist which is why I load with a dressage whip, not a rope. He had GREAT control over the rope. Then she backed off the trailer and the tapping continued. Then her front feet went on. The rope stopped and he praised her. In under 15 minutes he had her hopping on and off the trailer, self loading or leading on.

But the most amazing thing was his body language; his demeanor. He could have been waiting for a bus for all the stress he showed. A bus for an appointment that he was an hour early for. I thought, "THIS is how you load a horse." Somehow the timing of the pressure on and off just clicked for me that day and now I can load horses that other people can't get to load.

The third epiphany happened ironically when I was taking my kids to the dentist. There was a little boy in the next room who was having a tooth pulled. He was SCREAMING "LET GO OF ME!!" for about ten minutes. Then we saw him tearfully depart, triumphant, clutching stickers and other loot.

I asked the dentist who owns the practice if he ever used gas on the kids (this is not that unusual in pediatric practices). He said "No, you don't know what you're going to get. Sometimes you just get a really frightened kid who is totally stoned. We just keep going. We know we're not hurting them."

"We just keep going. We know we're not hurting them."

I've applied that philosophy to trailer loading ever since. Just keep going. I'm not hurting him. A tap on the withers with a lunge whip does not hurt a horse. Even a sharp tap as a correction for not moving forward does not hurt them. Trailers annoy horses, but they don't hurt them.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Saddle Fitter Commeth

My brain is officially leaking out of my ears with new information.  People that grew up riding in the 70's and 80's and before are inherently suspicious of the saddle fitting profession. We start ranting like Grandpa Simpson. "In my day if your saddle didn't fit, you put a shit load of pads underneath it and rode! And we liked it!"

I think, especially after today, that much of this suspicion is justified. Most saddle fitters are associated with one brand of saddles or another and will hawk that saddle at you and your horse regardless of whether or not it's the best fit for your horse. Of course there are honest, talented saddle fitters out there who will sell you the most super awesome saddle, and who are also dealers. But how the hell is your average amateur horse person to know the difference?

Over the last year, I found two saddles that I love. The first came after much sitting on one of the million different saddles in stock at Pelham Saddlrey in New Hampshire. I sat in a Black Country Eloquence dressage saddle. My butt said "Thank you very much! This is the most amazing comfy saddle in the whole world" My wallet said "You do NOT have $2500 to spend on a saddle right now." And if I had taken it to try, my horse would have said "This is the wrong freaking tree size, what the hell were you thinking? I am NOT a wide!" So, I did what any good horse person would do and I complained vaguely on the COTH forums that I was having trouble finding a used Black Country dressage saddle in an 18" seat in a medium tree. Within a day a lovely woman who lives like 10 miles from here messaged me. It was an Eden, not an Eloquence. But she wanted less than half what Pelham was asking. I met her at a dressage barn a half hour away and left a check that she would cash if I decided to keep the saddle. The outdoor ring was covered with a layer of ice, but the turnout field had a crisp layer of snow. We pranced around in the new saddle. I felt secure. My leg swung underneath me correctly. My infinitely savvy barn manager came by for a second opinion. She thought it looked great. I called the lovely lady on the North Shore and told her to cash the check.

After I got the Eden, the Bates jumping saddle became unbearably uncomfortable so I began a quest to find a Black Country jumping saddle too. One was procured used from a dealer in PA.

My equine chiropractor (yes, Cassel has an equine chiropractor) had blessed them as "close enough," but have a saddle fitter look at them.

After four month of schedule wrangling the saddle fitter came today. This is what she pulled out that dressage saddle to make it *really* fit Cassel.
Two (of many things) I learned today. See the gray stuff? That's the original Black Country flocking. The white stuff was from a subsequent adjustment it had gotten along the way. The white stuff compacts into hard balls. When it pushes onto a horse's back it causes all kinds of pressure points. I thought out of my two saddles, the dressage saddle fit better. But it was dressage saddle that she ended up almost completely pulling apart and putting a different kind of wool into. It was just stuffed too tight with those hard white lumps. The lumps separate and create spaces which cause more pressure points.















One of my favorite things about the session today was the thermography. The image on the left is my dressage saddle before any work was done to it. We sit it on the horse's back and it generates heat wherever it makes contact with their back. Then take it off the horses back and take a picture of the saddle with a IR camera. You can see in the image on the left, the heat marks are totally uneven. There's a yellow stripe (an unflocked bubble) on the left side of the saddle. It's making less contact on the right side causing pressure points.

The right side is how it looks after reflocking. I had ridden in it for about 20 minutes and she took this image immediately afterward. The brighter white on the right hand side is due to the fact that I sit a little heavier on my right side when I ride, probably because I am right handed. Something for me to work on before the next visit. But the overall contact points are now smooth and lump free.

The fitter used to be a vet tech and was also certified in equine massage so she was able to really assess how our horses were doing and how the saddles were affecting them. Considering his saddles were so lumpy and over flocked, Cassel was doing OK.

One of our horses had his ribs being popped out of alignment from his saddle, and she was able to fix that with some felt shims that she fit underneath the panels. (It was a foam saddle, hence no reflocking). Two of our horses had saddles that could not be resolved because the fit was so bad. One had been sold to the owner by a certified saddle fitter/dealer. Which is why, in the end saddle fitters will forever be the mechanics of the equine world. Indispensable, expensive, impossible to find a genuine, honest one who will not sell you things you don't need and fix things that are not broken, or tell you things are OK when they are not, and when you find a good one, they are worth their weight in gold.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Fall Riding Epiphanies

The weather has been cooperating for a change. Not too hot, not too cold and last weeks rain cleared up leaving the ring and trails dry but dust free.

I had a lesson on Tuesday with Leslie Kornfeld who is a soft-spoken ball of dressage awesome-sauce. Her husband teaches the Alexander Technique so she knows a lot about body alignment. Her signature move (or one of them) is to have the rider canter on the ground sans horse so you can feel your "outside leg" pushing off and your inside hip tilted forward. This is a feeling you must try to recreate in the saddle. Inside hip forward and mobile. The transition strikes off on the outside hind. It's a feeling you get when you canter around yourself.

OF COURSE my farrier came running out with his cell phone and threatened to put me on Youtube. Good times.

The lesson was amazing. I have had some trouble connecting to my regular H/J instructor Melissa Gove (who is an H/J perky ball of awesome in her own way -- will devote other posts to her at another time). So I hadn't had any "eyes on the ground" for a couple weeks. Sometimes when you're an amature and your horse starts to become round, ie flexed in his poll and lifting his back up but you're not sure if he's really round or just messing with you and being heavy on his forehand and totally faking it. So, yeah, I was worried we were faking it. I didn't *think* so, but I wanted some feedback.

Also, the canter is "NQR" (Not Quite Right) and I wanted some help with that. He can do a beautiful "up" transition from either the walk or the trot, but coming down from the canter was feeling rough. There are always a bunch of steps of very fast trot that feels like a bicycle with no brakes going down a rocky hill.

Leslie changed up a couple things. She had me sit WAAAY back in the saddle. My upper body had been too far forward. She told me to pick up my inside hand about eight inches off his neck at the canter. Once I did that, my upper body settled back into place. This freed up his shoulders and let him balance back on his hind end. She had me pick both hands way off his neck at the trot. She said "Think snooty dressage riders!"

Then she got on him and I got to watch him go. I wish I had taken pictures, but I was really concentrating on what she was saying. She was teaching the whole time she was riding. The camera would have just been a distraction. She moved him from counter bend and true bend. Then she worked on an exercise we had been doing. Trot on a 20 meter circle. Halt across the center or quarter line. Turn on the forehand from inside to outside so you change direction. Walk forward a few steps and canter. This gets the hind end underneath the horse.

The canter was still NQR when I rode it, but it felt more balanced. Poor pony was sweaty and exhausted by the end, but he was good natured and sweet. She suggested I take him on a trail ride the following day, which we did. It was great. We got lost! We jumped big logs in the woods!

So today I decided to repeat Leslie's exercises. I changed it up a bit, by doing a little ground work first. Cassel knows how to do a very nice and easy turn on the forehand on the ground. (the ones we had done on Tuesday were pretty bad). On the ground, I pretty much just have to point to his hip with the dressage whip and he'll step right under himself and cross his inside hind under his belly and swing around. So we practiced that in both directions for a few minutes before I got on.

Today, the canter still feels weird, but a little less so. But suddenly the downward transition into the trot is soft! No more bicycle with no brakes on the rocky hill trot steps coming out of canter! Just soft, round balanced trot. So something has changed.

W00T

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Go that way very fast. If something gets in your way, JUMP!

My horse is supposed to be an eventer. He's a cute little dressage pony and a handy little jumper. He loves a good trail ride and is very sensible about all these things. The only problem is, I'm a Big Fat Chicken. When I think of eventing, I think of this:



Or worse, this:





In other words, not exactly an option for a bop around gal like myself. So when my Barn Friends (TM) invited me to go to a "pre-elementary" Derby Cross I decided to give it a shot. I thought, I could handle logs on the ground. When we got there, we realized that the pre-elementary division was too simple (telephone poles on the ground in a fenced field) for even a wuss like myself and went into the elementary division.

It took place on the real cross country course and still consisted mostly of logs on the ground, tiny banks (logs that stepped up and down into the hillside like big friendly horsey stairs) and one little "coop" fence.

It ended with a nice long gallop, or in my case big stretchy canter around a field.

It was SO fun. After warm up, Cassel was uncharacteristically spazzy and dancing around. "Where we going???" We bust out of the outbox at a spanking trot and pretty much trotted around the whole thing until it was time to gallop around the field.

We had a stop at the coop. He backed up a few feet. I just whacked him on the butt and he popped right over it and the rest of the course was gravy.

Here we are cantering over a LOG. I am dressed as a SMURF.

Here we are on course. See that stone wall behind us? We turned around and galloped (well fast cantered) beside it. He looks really excited, but if you look close, there is a loop in my reins. Even when he's excited, he never feels like he's going to take off.



This is the jump that my husband said: Don't you usually jump bigger than that? Yeah, but it was CROSS COUNTRY!

I'd better get my lower leg forward, or Denny Emerson will come down from Vermont and mock me.



Sunday, September 28, 2014

Indian Summer and the Not So Good Ride

Cassel poses in his snazzy new bridle
Cassel's winter coat is coming in. His sleek sun bleached wanna be bay coat is shedding out and is being replaced with a soft fuzzy black velvet fur. A couple weeks ago when the temperature dropped and it looked like Fall had won the Season it was just fine. But this weekend the mercury is topping 80 and there is no shade in the outdoor ring and it's hot.

We had a great lesson last week. Non horse people often ask, "You know how to ride, why do you need to take lessons?" It's like asking the Boston Symphony Orchestra, "You all know how to play your instruments, why do you need a conductor?" If you're serious about riding and want to do right by your horse, it's a good idea. You can't see yourself ride and you never know when your scrunching up your left side and your horse is careening around the corner at a 45 degree angle like a motorcycle and you just can't figure out WHY. Why does it feel like I'm sitting on a bag of squirming kittens? Then your trainer comes along and unlocks what you need to be doing muscle by muscle. She gives you great things to try. Trot poles to canter transition? I never would have come up with that. And if you're lucky by then your horse is soft and willing and you just think and breathe and things happen when you want them to.

I had one of those lessons last week and that feeling lasted well until Thursday. Then it started to slip. Today was hot and cranky and he was quick and pull-ey. He wasn't being naughty. He was just trying to anticipate the NEXT THING and do it RIGHT NOW. Then right as I was just about ready to decide to call it a day somebody decided to walk their dog down the conservation land by the end of the ring and my horse decided the dog was really a HORSE EATING CTHULHU. He threw up his head, grabbed the bit and started to do a super fast hula dance. Sort of canter, hop, canter, hop this way and that with me sort of looking the blaze on his face which was sort of horizontally in front of my face while my iPhone flew out of my pocket due to the momentum.

I tried to sit up and continue the canter which only incited more hula dancing, so we trotted and trotted past the CTHULHU until he would trot past it quietly in both directions. Then we cantered again. It probably took less than ten minutes if that. But when I got off we were both soaked with sweat. Between the 80 degree day and the winter fuzzies the pony was hot.

So, I gave him a thorough neck to tail hosing in the washstall which he didn't seem to mind one bit and let him graze while I got everything cleaned up.

After today I decided we need less ring work, more lessons and cooler weather.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Do you think I'm a Namaste girl?

When I was growing up as the Fat Girl (TM) I loathed exercise. Gym class was an exercise in Medieval Torture. Moving my body was unpleasant and foreign. Particularly during the four years of high school when I stopped riding entirely. In Cambridge where I grew up, they had a very enlightened and humane physical education program. You could take skiing or hiking and get your quarter's credit in a day. But I had no coordination (or so I believed) so I'd fall down on my skiis and end up parked somewhere nursing a wrenched ankle or knee. But I had showed up, so the gym credit was secured.

Regular sports were something I would do if I wanted to get mocked and show people what my face looked like when it was hot pink.

There were a couple things I didn't know that would have really helped me. I had asthma.One of my triggers has always been exercise. When I sat there gasping like a fish, my mother would offer sudafed and herbal tea and go about her day. "Just breathe in the steam," she'd advised. I often wonder if some of the 1970's and 80's laissez faire parenting we experienced when we were kids causes us to over compensate. But I won't expound on that. This is not a parenting blog! But somehow I survived their lackadaisical approach to pulmonary care. But as a result I shunned all aerobic exercise until I got the damn asthma diagnosed and was proscribed albuterol somewhere around my sophomore or junior year of high school. But by then the damage was done. I hated exercising with a passion. I was rather large but healthy and that was where I was going to stay.

Later I would discover I really loved hiking and general outdoorsey stuff. I kept trying aerobics in the 1980's and I'd stick with it for a couple weeks until I discovered that I absolutely hated aerobics. All that jumping up and down in the same room. Foot cramps and general discomfort. I noticed recently that nobody seems to teach straight aerobics any more. It seems to have crawled into a hole and died. Good riddance.

So what's this got to do with riding? I'm getting there.. Stay with me. Good riding is about fitness. The fitter you are, (and I don't mean thinner) the easier it is to ride a horse well and stay in balance. Fit people come in all shapes and weights. There's women much larger than me that can run circles around me and run triathlons and shit. Horses can carry a full grown man and a suit of armor, so balanced weight is not a problem for them. But fitness is key to actually getting them to do what you want.

Before I got sick my son and I were working through a Couch to 5K program and miracle of miracles I learned that I could run. I actually liked running through the woods near my house. I got a real buzz from just being able to do it. And after about a month of running consistently, I could do a real sitting trot. For a whole minute.

But the thing that has been my go to fitness/sanity thing for the last ten years or so has been yoga. I just wish I had found it sooner.

In about 1995 I went with some friends to a yoga class in New York City. I had never been to a yoga class before. I knew nothing about it. I'm very sad to report that I really, really ended up in the wrong class. I don't remember much about it other than it was crowded, I couldn't follow it, the teacher didn't offer any modifications or show me how to use blocks or straps and I remember watching a tiny woman hovering in a low plank position. I vaguely recall letting the teacher know I was a beginner at the beginning of the class and she completely ignored me and left me to struggle through some advanced poses. I left the class placing YOGA neatly on my list next to AEROBICS of the list of things I DO NOT DO and left at that for the next ten years.

Then when my son was a baby and I was having a Bad Day my friend convinced me to come to a yoga class. She knew the teacher. She had taken the class before. She promised me it would be relaxing.

It was the most stretchy yummy hour and a half of my life. It was like all of my muscles got a massage at once. And suddenly I knew what all the fuss was about. This was deep into the 12 years when I had stopped riding to have all the babies and marry the husband. I did yoga off and on for the next few years. The year before I got back into riding I started doing yoga regularly through a course at work. It was a wonderful class. At the end the instructor would shake out and align our bodies so we would be completely neutral for Savasana.

The amazing thing was when I started riding again it didn't hurt. Before when I'd tried to ride, I'd be gimping around taking advil for days because my legs hurt so much from the assault on the unused muscles.

Yoga and riding are completely symbiotic. All of the alignment you learn in yoga can be applied to riding. When you're on a horse you must have your chest open and your shoulders back and your shoulder blades "dripping down you back" at all times. Yoga strengthens your core which is essential to riding.

So now, I grab a yoga class whenever I can. I tend to avoid the super athletic instructors that use words like "glutes" and "abs" during the class. I find that antithetical to relaxing. I like yoga classes with "restorative" and "feel good" in the class description. It works for me.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Fear Factor: This is your brain. On a horse.

When I was 11 years old, I was fearless. I rode horses helmetless through fields, bareback as fast as the adults would let me. Occasionally I would take a spill, but I always got right back on as soon as I could catch the damn horse. My formal riding education was spotty. A couple summers being screamed at by an instructor at Cornell riding stables before I switched to trail riding. If there had been memes in those days, mine would have been keep calm and grab mane. I suppose I wasn't quite as cavalier as I remember. I was quite rattled by some of my high speed emergency dismounts. But they never led to a true crisis of confidence that lasted more than a few weeks.

Now, like many adult riders, I am a bundle of nerves much of the time. This is Not. Rational. My horse has never done anything bad like buck or bolt. He occasionally stops and stands stock still with no notice. This is his go to move when he's frightened of something. His main evasion is backing up. Annoying, but not dangerous. Twice he completely freaked out when we stepped on a bees nest, but the wonderful Colleen Campbell taught me how to do a one rein stop and made sure I had the muscle memory to keep myself out of trouble. So, if the shit really hits the fan, I have a toolkit that keeps me from flying into a tree. But still, I have to give myself a little "Everything's going to be fine!" pep talk before I put my foot in the stirrup.

I wasn't always like this. It started in my 20's. I used to have a beautiful gray trakhener horse that I mortgaged my soul to buy when he was 4 years old. He had been in professional training his whole life before I got him. Due to several blizzards that made the vetting take forever and his trainer going to Florida, he hadn't been ridden for a month by the time he came to me. He bucked me off the first time I got on him and it didn't go much better after that. My trainer left for Florida a couple weeks after he arrived at my barn and I was on my own. By the time spring rolled around I was afraid of him but too proud and too in debt to admit it.

I had never heard the term "overhorsed" before. It was 1996 and the Equine Internets were not a Thing yet. I was just a terrible rider and there was nothing to be done but spend my entire salary on training. Even with full training, I could not get the horse to trot in a circle without bolting on me. Looking back, it's a miracle I didn't get seriously injured. A lot of it was in my head. Part of the problem was the place I boarded him stopped turnout from about March-June so that the paddocks would keep their grass for the summer. So, I'd dread riding and my horse would become more nutty and a vicious cycle would ensue. To me now, the turnout situation is insane. If I had known then, what I know now, I never would have boarded there. I know that limited turnout is common for dressage horses in general. But I think it's part of what makes dressage horses so damn difficult to ride is that they're cooped up in stalls 20 hours a day. Carl Hestor turns his horses out. And he does OK, so I think there is something to be said for extended turnout for performance horses.

My horse lives out 24x7 with good shelter and buddies and if I can't get out there for a week, I'm riding the same horse I rode when I was last there; meaning he's not a dingbat. Other horses I've had needed to be ina 'program' otherwise they became unrideable if they had more than a day or two off. I believe it's partially his good brain, but it's also due to the fact that he can move, stretch, buck, fart and roll when he wants to.

But I digress. Back to my nerves. Finally in 1998 right around the time I met my husband I had made the decision to sell the beautiful gray trakhener. I took a big loss on him because I hadn't been able to do anything with him while I had him. He had no show experience and wasn't coming out a big name barn like the one I got him from. But eventually he sold to a hunter jumper barn in Connecticut and I got married and quit riding cold turkey. I didn't intend to. I was just burned out financially and emotionally. I had sunk all my resources into buying this dream and my sense of shame and isolation that it didn't work out was crippling. Now I know that this kind of thing happens CONSTANTLY. People buy a nice prospect that they just can't ride for one reason or another and at the end their confidence is shot. I just didn't know anybody at the time this had happened to.There are so many things I wish I could go back and tell my 26 year old self. "Don't buy that horse! You need a school master, not a prospect."

Nearly 20 years later I'm just clearing out the final cobwebs that situation left behind. Some of the holes in my confidence are just from being over 40 and knowing that when you fall (and you do, it's just something that can happen) you fall harder than you did when you were 11. And the thought of being laid up and not being able to take care of my kids is hideous. But I take deep breaths and trust my pony not to do anything stupid, and trust my muscle memory to get myself out of trouble and once I start to RIDE as opposed to anticipating the RIDING the anxiety goes away. Because when you are focusing on your ride, there is never any room in your brain for cobwebs or anything else.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

That was then. This is now.

When you get out of horses for twelve years and get back you inadvertently spend a lot of time spinning your wheels trying to replace things or revitalized your old stuff, only to find it's completely obsolete.

I had a Crosby Hunterdon saddle that I purchased brand spanking new in 1993.
I loved that saddle for the balance, for the fact that it fit almost any horse I put it on, for the fact that it caused me unmentionable lady problems that resulted in month long bouts of celibacy that almost destroyed my marriage... Wait, except for that last thing. I loved that saddle. Part of the issue was that after riding almost exclusively dressage in my late teens and early 20's I sat rather than perched in the saddle like I did during my hunt seat days.

I learned that nowadays, jumping saddles are cushy, padded affairs. So I swapped the Hunterdon to my trainer and got a Bates Caprilli jumping saddle.

This saddle was was fine for a few years until I really started jumping. Then I just felt like I was fighting with the saddle to keep my leg from swinging and to keep my upper body from lurching forward. Of course, I assumed I was a terrible rider and the saddle had nothing to do with it. Plus the scary marriage busting problem began to rear its ugly head on longer rides. I eventually had to face the facts, the Bates just didn't fit me.

I lucked into a great deal on a Black Country Wexford jumping saddle that I got on trial from these folks: Hastilow Competition Saddles USA. Suddenly, in my jumping saddle, I can have my heels down, my leg underneath me and on the horse all at the same time. My body isn't being pitched forward. So now any forward leaning issues I have really are caused by my boobs er, I mean rider error.

The good folks at Pelham Saddlery in New Hampshire managed to sell my Bates for me in about thirty seconds for way more than I was asking when I tried to sell it myself. They were thrilled to get it as it was in such great shape and in a hard to find size and color.

But it aint over 'till it's over. You can't just buy a new saddle and throw it on your horse with a big squishy pad and ride off into the sunset! No, that's horse abuse. You must hire a qualified saddle fitter to come move the stuffing around to make sure it's a perfect fit. Otherwise you may as well call the humane society out and tell them to bring their trailer to take your pony away to a more suitable home.

Back in the 90's I boarded at a pretty fancy barn and NOBODY had a custom saddle or a professionally fitted saddle. You made sure there was room for the withers and that the saddle was roughly level, either with shim pads or whatever. But now you pay High Priestess (or Priest) of the Church of Saddle Fitting hundreds of dollars to reflock or refit or build a custom saddle just for your horse. The costs are staggering.

That Hunterdon I bought back in '93 was $800 or $900 dollars and that was a fancy show quality saddle. You can still get some new saddles for around 1k, but the quality is pretty iffy. And nobody expected me to drop another $150 on a saddle fitter.

However, grumbling aside I do see tremendous value in the concept of saddle fitting. Saddles are unnatural. the more thought we can put into evenly distributing our weight through a perfectly flocked saddle the happier these honest, giving creatures will be.

Now, if I could just get that saddle fitter scheduled for my newfangled saddle fitting. Then I'll yell "Hey you kids get off my lawn!" while she's working. Just to show I'm still old and crotchety. Even if I am embracing this newfangled equine technology.

Friday, September 12, 2014

How did I get here?

Memorial Day 2010. I was 39 years old and I realized that a mental affliction I had discovered somewhere in my third year of life that had lain dormant for 12 years was about to come roaring back with a vengeance. I had managed to suppress my "affliction" by getting married and producing two healthy and demanding little people that managed to divert my focus elsewhere. But somehow, once my daughter (the Littlest one) turned 3, the fog lifted and it was like I was introduced to myself again. Oh, HELLO there! I thought you'd left the building for good!

What is this affliction? Of course, it's obvious. I'm horse crazy. Always have been. I'm not one of those girls who discovered cars and boys and left horses behind for good. My urban high school existence and the temporary setback of a almost anaphylactic allergy attack after riding in the 8th grade made riding almost impossible during my late teens. But thanks to the invention of Seldane and later Claritin and my family's purchase of a farm in Western MA in 1987 I was able to go back to full speed with my obsession by my 18th birthday.

So, after my daughter turned 3 and was toillet trained a space opened up in my brain. I was like "Hello Me! How are you?" I answered "Horses! I like horses. A lot!" So, I took a few riding lessons and after six months of this, I wanted my own horse again. Badly. Of course this was insanity. I still had two little kids who demanded much time and attention and a nearly full time job. But the heart wants what it wants, and I wanted a Connemara Pony.

I met my first Connemara pony back in 1983. One of my teachers took us to a breeding farm and I met Greystone McErrill.
He was big for a "pony" he topped out at 15.2 hands and I never forgot him. I googled him and found out that he had just died a couple years before leaving a long legacy of progeny. So, I decided I wanted a horse at least tangentially related to McErrill.

My husband who had been warned, at least verbally that he was marrying a horse CRAZY nutcase before he wedding proceeded with his blessing in a kind and logical way. So I posted a horse wanted ad on the American Connemara Pony Society website for a pony wanted and waited...

Then a lady in Kansas sent me this picture:

He was an unstarted two year old. His Grandmother on his sire's side was a Greystone pony by McErrill. I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep. I lost five pounds obsessing over that face and that eye.I was pushing forty. I didn't need an unstarted sight unseen two year old from freaking Kansas. But then my ten year old self stole my credit card and sent him to K-State to get vetted.

We spent a year on the ground getting to know each other. Him learning how to be a solid citizen on the ground, how to pick his feet up on cue, how to stand quietly on cross ties, how to lead anywhere without crowding me. Then I sent him to Coleen Campbell out in Leverett when he was three to put the stop and go buttons on.

I don't recommend buying a horse sight unseen off the Internets as a general rule, but for me it has worked out spectacularly. I've since convinced several other women to buy horses from these folks in Kansas and none have regretted it. This stallion throws athletic babies with great minds. And that is what every amateur owner wants and needs whether she knows it or not.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Dressage Dilletante Channeles Charlotte

My horse is a mensch. Mensch is a Yiddish word meaning "great guy, a real sweetie, someone you'd want your daughter to marry."

I spent three days in the hospital at the end of August with a shocking bout of colitis. Not something I'd ever dealt with before, but it left me weak and grouchy and barely able to hold my head up or drive for two weeks. My horse was mainly left to his own devices for most of that time. I had my trainer ride him once, but otherwise, he was pretty much hanging out with his buddies, eating hay and farting.

Finally Tuesday, I hopped on and hacked around on a loose rein. He knew something was up because he reverted to his "pony ride walk." This is the walk he does when I put my eight year old non horsey daughter on his back. Plod. Plod. Plod. Each foot goes down deliberately like I'm a glass of water he's trying not to spill. Then we did the pony ride trot. Nose out in front, slow, slow slow. Then I decided to call it a day. Baby steps. I. Was. Exhausted.

This is a horse that had been sitting in a field for two weeks. No shenanigans. Nada. He sensed I was weak and not myself and he took care of me just like that. My previous horses I had in my twenties were so high maintenance. They needed to be ridden every day. Or else they were crazy fire breathing dragons who saw snakes and monsters in every corner of the arena. Spinning and bolting was a regular occurrence.

I credit this temperament to his superior Connemara brain. His sire JEF Sir Lancelot throws sane babies. I also know that it's partially due to the fact that he lives outside 24x7. Horses just weren't designed to live in a stall. More on this in a subsequent post.

Then Wednesday I felt up for a more normal ride. I pulled out the dressage saddle and used the whip because he can get a bit pokey and behind my leg. Just carrying it is usually enough to keep things perky.

Trot felt good if a little wiggly but once we warmed up it was great. Then I decided to see if I could still sit the trot with any consistency. This is something I've really been working on. My son and I have been doing the Couch to 5K which has completely stalled, due in part to a heel injury and my hospitalization. But the basic change in my fitness level that happened when I started running was stunning. I could sit for shorter then longer periods of time.

So, I decided to channel Charlotte Dujardin. You know, she of the gold medals, tacky voice and amazing dressage seat? She sticks to Valegro like somebody crazy glued her to the saddle. I watched part of her freestyle at the recent WEG. Yes only part, because even for me watching dressage on tiny video is about as interesting as Candelpins for Cash. She just sucks that horse's front up with her abs and it works. Abs up, heels down seat bones to hind legs and for a few strides you can feel it all coming together. Or maybe I just looked like a big sack of potatoes bouncing around up there.

We did the same thing today for a bit longer with more canter. I'm still not 100% but feeling so blessed I'm able to ride.

Here we are in July doing our first dressage test ever. 59% Bah.