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!!


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

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.