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.