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The problem of Courage

Tonight, the Filly and I warmed up. It was dark. There was no one else on the farm. We stopped to take a break and looked around at the very black, very empty space around the arena. She sighed, stretched her neck down, and turned to look at me as she does when she’s happy. And bored. And we took off, to a semi-controlled trot, and an uncontrolled explosion when I asked for the canter.

(This photo isn’t from tonight, but it looked like a more airbourne version of this.)

She reared. She kicked out. She twisted. I saw the fenceline approaching from an angle. And I sat back. I kept her head up. I booted her forward. I didn’t growl at her the way I’m inclined to when she’s deliberately naughty, I didn’t hiss, and I didn’t back off. She broke into a trot, I steadied her, tipped my left heel back and gasped.

I still haven’t forgotten that she can do ^this^, and purely as a result, she hasn’t either. The problem when she does ^this^ is that she has enough power from the Super Butt behind us that it takes very little to pop even the steadiest rider over her shoulder, and even less to send Former Miss Hunter over the arena fence…or through it. We’ve come a long way since these days (primarily thanks to the trainer, shown in this photo). The problem of Courage is for me to remember that we’ve come a long way.

“Ok. I’m done, mom. Let’s go.”

Her answer was a very-fast-but-calm canter. Unbalanced. Tight turns. Reminiscent of a barrel racer wearing the wrong saddle. I sat back. I steered with a jockey’s rein. I balanced for her. It wasn’t pretty, but we did it.

We’ve got a long way to go before it’s pretty, but the hardest part is going to be remembering all the times that I sat up, steered, and balanced like a rider.

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March 8, 2012 · 12:59 am

Snow Day

Snow Day

It was snowy and slushy outside so we took a lazy day and had a bareback walk around the arena to look at the snow and listen to the slush fall off the barn. Jitter did not find any of this as interesting as doing her Zenyatta dance through the puddles…during which, of course, she was in perfect dressage frame. Sigh.

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March 5, 2012 · 7:00 pm

A bit of controversy

After months and months of attempting to teach the filly (and myself) the torture art of dressage, I have to say we are both making spectacular progress for a former hunter/jumper and a former unbroke lawn ornament. She is in spectacular frame on the longe line and sidereins and I am getting better about sitting back and widening my hands. We can achieve a frame under saddle some days, and others we struggle. A lot.

Now that we’re getting back into shape for spring and summer, my trainer came to me recently with a new idea.

We have always ridden in an French Link eggbutt snaffle (like this). I broke Jitter in that, and it’s worked well for us. If we have an Energetic Day, I sit deep and practice my half halts, and eventually the draft side of her comes out and she gets tired after about 15 minutes of pulling on me.

The trainer’s suggestion is to get her in good shape and take about two lessons in a copper mouth Pelham; the idea is to just carry the leverage rein unless I need to put an extra ‘omph’ in my ask, to get the filly to take me a little more seriously, then switch back to our regular bit and continue as normal.

As I’ve researched this, I’ve learned that people have violent, violent opinions about all forms of Pelham bits, particularly Tom Thumbs. (At first description, I thought that’s what my trainer was suggesting, but it turns out Tom Thumbs are a harsher variety of Pelhams. So, all Tom Thumbs are Pelhams, but not all Pelhams are Tom Thumbs. SAT flashback much?)

Pelhams are this. And Tom Thumbs are this.

Caveat: I am totally and completely aware that a part of the fact that a portion of our struggle is rider error, because I’m still learning this stuff. No debates here.

Being as I’ve only ridden in snaffles, I’m a neophyte when it comes to drawing force diagrams around your bit, but the gist of what I’ve learned is this: People who hate these bits say that Pelhams suck because they are leverage bits, but because their shanks are longer, Tom Thumbs suck more. Also with Pelhams in double reins you can choose whether to use direct or leverage pressure.

I watched about half of a 10-minute video of an outraged man waving several kinds of bits around in front of the camera and declaring that all bits are unnecessary, and leverage bits are cruel things used only by cruel, stupid people and they should all be destroyed, because people yank on them and it hurts the horse’s mouth.

My personal impression is that if you yank on anything in a horse’s mouth, it will hurt, the same way that if you abuse any piece of tack you’ll probably hurt your horse. I’m not a fan of people or disciplines that encourage equipment swapping as a first response to a performance issue, but I think like anything it can be a useful tool, in balance with other useful tools like rider and horse conditioning, education and physical assessments. I’m fairly unclear as to why this particular bit is deemed cruel regardless of application.

We still have a few more weeks of workouts in our sidereins and french link to get back in shape before we try this new thing, but I must admit I’m looking forward to using it briefly and appropriately to see if this will give both Jitter and I a new perspective on our training.

What bit do you use on your horse, and why?

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Grooming tales (of grooming tails)

I don’t deal well with problems when I absolutely cannot think of a possible plan of attack for them.

Normally this results in either a) obsessing about the problem, insane amounts of Googling and a poll of everyone who will stand still long enough to be bothered, or b) a complete avoidance of the problem. I’m afraid my method of dealing with Jitter’s very drafty tail has most resembled b).

Jitter is very fortunate, in my opinion, to have gotten the best elements of both her Thoroughbred dam and Anonymous Draft Variety sire, which includes thick black hair for her forelock, mane, and tail. The forelock actually has this punk rock streak of red in it, which I assumed she had a friend dye for her during some late-night rave (cause it just showed up one day and I sure as heck didn’t put it there). The downside to having a drafty tail is that a) the tail, as a unit, is thick. Too thick for any tail bag, anywhere b) it grows very fast c) it is wavy and d) the individual strands are very thick, so when they go unbrushed for…ahem…months? they twist around each other to form dreadlocks.

So, while it probably should look like this:

And it looks more like this:

And that doesn’t do proper justice to the dreds.

Naturally I ignored the fact that my horse was a Rastifarian for a few months, but this winter it just got too Bob Marley for me. I began researching the options for managing a particularly thick tail.

  • A startling number of people suggest pulling tails the way you would pull a mane. I can’t imagine that this is safe, because you’d have to be in the bullseye of striking distance to pull the hairs out properly, and I’m also not sure why anyone would want to thin a tail, which as near as I can tell is the only advantage to pulling anything over trimming it. It seems we treat horse hair like our own–if it’s thin we want it thicker, if it’s thick we want it thinner, primarily because the grass is always greener and braids more easily on the other side of the fence. I noticed none of the people suggesting inquiring forum posters stand behind their 1000 lb animals and yank parts of their tail out, volunteered that they had ever done this themselves. Pass.
  • There was a lot of debate over banging tails–do you or don’t you. For Jitter this isn’t an option, because if I leave the thing alone more than four weeks it’s picking up the mud from her fetlocks. Mostly the issue people had with it was the typical split ends/unhealthy hair nonsense objection that I hear about trimming manes, but I don’t know how dragging snowballs/mudballs around behind us is supposed to be healthy. Eh.
  • It seemed no two sites could agree on detangling–use silicone detanglers or avoid them like the plague, use oils vs leaving them out to avoid picking up dust, use a comb vs a human hair brush vs a horse hair brush vs fingers only to work out knots. Aah!

I refuse to believe that detangling a tail is really this complicated and finally I found a compromise that I like: the best shampoo job I could manage in 50-degree weather, plus daily treatment with a three-way mix of mineral oil, Cowboy Magic, and Vetrolin spray conditioner (moisturizing, detangling and all-day conditioning) and brushing with this.This brush is a Godsend. And no, Smartpak/Oster did not pay me to tell you that.

The first three buckets of soapy tail water ran brown (and I do mean opaque, chocolate milkshake brown) but that took care of some of the dreds. Will post “after” pics after we’ve had a few more days on the spray n’ brush regimen but so far so good!

How do you deal with your horse’s tail challenges?

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2012 Ambitions

Let the record show that 2011 was a year of much upheaval…and much blog neglect.

I realize the point of a blog is to write daily or almost-daily, and that starting one in the first place was probably one of the single most self-defeating tasks I could set out on as someone who is in a constant struggle to balance two, sometimes three jobs, training a filly, having a social life and getting some sleep once in awhile. But January is a new start, and despite the fact that I’m roughly 3 weeks behind in laying out my plans for the new year, it’s all part of the plan.

I tend to be a person of (too much) structure. My brain, and my Google calendar, are littered with self-imposed deadlines. Nearly every minute of every day is on a timetable of my own making. I developed this skill (/curse) in college after I burnt out on one job and had moved on to another, while pushing myself to make Dean’s List (which I did, twice) and starting Jitter. It seemed like there was never enough time for everything, like there were too many ideas and projects in my head and only so many years to tackle them before I got too old, too tired, too whatever.

This carries over into my work with the Filly. We came so far in 2011, from the days of barely cantering on a 20 meter circle, inverted neck and all, to our basic understanding of dressage, field jogs and gymnastics jumps. And there were plenty of days I was too pressed for time, too tired, too sick to ride that I rode anyway. There were plenty of weeks she could have done with a dressage-free day or even a work-free day and I dragged us both out there, twisting on our serpentines. And you know what? I don’t think we were any better for it.

I just kept thinking–we’ve lost too much time. If we’re going to get to a show this year, if I expect to get her jumping, we’ve got to hurry up. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be.

Had 2011 gone the way I’d anticipated, I would be getting married 4 months from now. I must admit part of my initial panic when the whole thing fell apart was, among many other things, that this constituted failure. There were certain guidelines to how life was supposed to go, and I had fouled out. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. But in the time since then I’ve realized that the rules of the game? Are only what you make them. We aren’t all going to end up the same way in life, so it’s absurd to expect us all to take the same paths on the way.

So I’ve resolved this year, to not make resolutions. Ideas, yes; resolutions, no. It’ll be a list, but not a “to-do”. Nothing rigid because, if I planned it all out, the whole thing would be turned on its head by 2013 anyway.

So, in that spirit my list for the Filly–

  1. We will master the trailer. This is the only exception to the “no resolutions” rule, because it’s a safety issue that we’ve left for too long. We did make progress in 2011 in that we can now get on a trailer with our nose in the grain bucket, but we’ve got to be able to close it up and go.
  2. It would be awesome if we could get to a show this year. If we can’t, we can’t. The world won’t end. Unless you believe Nostradamus, in which case none of this matters anyway. We don’t have to pin, if we do make it there but it would be nice to go.
  3. Equally awesome would be getting out to Masterson at some point, as observers or for a ride ourselves. Either option would be progress.
  4. I really want to work on our canter this year; for a downhill draft cross, this will ultimately be our most challenging gait, I think. Someday, I want us to remain balanced on turns with a consistent pace and sane transitions. Someday, it would be great if we could canter outside the arena. We’ll see.

We began our 2012 a little differently. We’d had three weeks off so I’d planned to put her on the longe and get back to work with our sidereins, but in the spirit of my anti-resolutions, I reconsidered. I hopped on my filly for a bareback walk around the arena. The sun was setting. Her ears were nodding toward me, and she was stretching her neck down into the bit without being asked.

It didn’t even feel like work–which of course, was the perfect way to start.

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Intro to dressage (or, TDG says yield and Jitter giggles)

The filly and I have spent about 3 weeks discussing sidereins. I think of this as more of a discussion than instruction. I’ve used them before, but in the Hunter Land I come from, there hadn’t been much cause to use them quite as much as I am now.

This is actually at the recommendation of our vet, who I called to diagnose a phantom hind end lameness that turned out to be non-pathologic lameness and completely inefficient motion. Obviously I’m more ok with that than a chip, but it certainly sounds damning.

We started out simple–on the third hole on a set of sidereins with elastic ends. The vet came for a check-up, and promptly cranked them up about 18 inches. This sounds kind of…insane but as it turns out, she’s perfectly capable of resisting the bit even with them that short, so I don’t feel I’m forcing her into anything much.

She understands what they are for, and gives me beautiful, beautiful movement when she decides she wants to listen. However, as a greenie she gets bored/mad/tired/lazy/hormonal/angsty/whatever some days and spends about 30 min. fighting them before bringing her head to the little perpendicular line I’m supposed to imagine coming from the ground. Other days, it’s an instantaneous head drop, and I keep the sessions short on those days as reinforcement.

Mind you–I don’t know much about dressage. Probably best to describe my feelings toward it as similar to those toward brussels sprouts: a necessary pain that everyone will lecture you about the benefits of. I’m trying to keep an open mind, but the more frustrating the learning process, the harder that’s becoming.

Current struggle: Correctly reinforcing a yield under tack.

Apparently, I’m tending to catch her in the mouth when she yields. I don’t mean to be doing this, and I try to soften my hands as soon as she gives, but I’m either too late, or too enthusiastic, and I drop her mouth altogether. There doesn’t seem to be a problem when I keep my reins longer but in contact, since I can keep my hands soft to start with. When we first start out though, this doesn’t work so well, and the pretty merry-go-round pony sticks her head straight up and sets off like a Standardbred.

Particularly distressing: I am told that this is a Formative Stage In Our Training (like, what isn’t?) and if I don’t get this right soon, I’m going to frustrate her out of yielding, which is way harder to fix. Any dressage newbies out there got a suggestion?

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“Stupid human” diaries: Jitter speaks

I have to say, summer in Kentucky has got to be the BEST thing ever.

I mean, there’s the grass…and the clover…and the rain…and did I mention the grass??? But Kentucky grass isn’t just any grass. Kentucky grass is Magical. All those extra sugars inspire a lot of brilliance and creativity.

Last summer, I found that the grass (and my pasturemates) provided me some great ideas of How to Evade the Stupid Human. I’ve long been a believer that if the Human is Stupid enough to let us loose in a 10 acre field with no halter, then they deserve whatever they get. Quite honestly, watching everyone else mindlessly trudge to the gate, swatting flies and complaining about all the work they’re going to have to do is really grotesque to me.

I applaud those among my fellow equines bold enough to go tearing across the field at the sight of their Human (away from the Human, I mean). But such a simple diversion is really a little uninspiring.

Therefore, I have come up with my own game plan that I’d like to share with the less brainy of my buddies:

  1. Always keep an eye out for the Stupid Human’s vehicle. The vehicle means nothing short of immediate capture. If you are able to do so out of direct sight of the vehicle, gradually move away from the gate. Do NOT look at the vehicle, or you will ruin the illusion that this is all coincidental grass hunting, preventing the Stupid Human from catching on to you.This is especially effective if you are positioned such that the Stupid Human can see you in your original, so-close-they-can-touch-you-from-the-fence state and you can make it all the way across the pasture while they go to the barn to fetch a leadrope, almost appearing to disappirate. Yes. I read Harry Potter. Shut up.
  2. When the Stupid Human enters the field, do not acknowledge the noise of the gate, grain bucket, or any squealing, whistling, calling, begging, pleading of the Human. This furthers the impression that you are deaf, and cannot possibly be expected to respond. Or work.
  3. When the Stupid Human gives up calling and begins walking toward you, lumber off in the opposite direction. Pause long enough for the Human to get within three feet of your shoulder, then walk casually away. This makes the human think that they have approached you in front of your tipping point, and that this is all (still) a misunderstanding.
  4. When the Stupid Human, if they have studied that “unnatural horsemanship” weirdness, tries to approach you from the front, proceed to turn away and offer them your butt, but turn only as quickly as they walk toward you. If you are very clever about this, you may give the Human the impression they are failing to actually move.
  5. As the human grows more persistent, allow them to get closer. If they get too close you will have to trot (yes, I know, tragic) away to get an appropriate distance before allowing them to try again.
  6. Now that you have created a slow boil in  your human’s little brain, it’s time to have a lot of fun. After several reps of #5, take off at a breakneck speed toward  your buddies and drive them into a blind gallop. If you can aim some of the low friends on the totem pole at the human, all the better. Ideally you should arrange this with them over breakfast, but if not just nip a few butts and you’ll get the same result.

Repeat steps 3-6 as needed.

There are several benefits to this system for you: more grass, less work, more fun. Did I mention more grass? But really this is your selfless act of the week for your Stupid Human. I believe it’s a valuable experience for them.

  • They get great aerobic exercise–which, let’s face it, their lazy butts could really use
  • They improve their sense of movement in relation to (somewhat) still objects–a great bonus for jumpers
  • They get anger management training
  • They sweat out that awful hairstyle, which really didn’t look that good anyway
  • They learn humility. Particularly if their parents or friends have chosen today to come to the barn

It’s a hard life, being the keeper of a Stupid Human. But in the end we can’t help but love them. Which is obviously why we add a little head toss and buck into the equation. Ahem.

Stay tuned for more how-to guides on dealing with your Stupid Human!

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