Last week, temperatures were in the mid-90s most of the week, with high humidity, mosquitoes, biting flies and afternoon thunderstorms. The downside was that it wasn’t fun to be a horse or, for that matter, to ride a horse. The upside was that I didn’t have to water my potted plants. So I had that going for me.
This week, on the flip side of the cold front that broke the back of summer, a cool breeze blows from the north, the AC is off in the house and the horses’ tails flick lazily in the breeze or lie still as they nap in the benevolent late summer sun.
Autumn crickets chirp and the bot fly eggs are back. I’ve been blessed to have horses all my life and I think I may have actually tried every technique to remove the eggs from the horses’ legs so that I can, if even slightly, interrupt the parasite cycle in the little dearies in my charge.
My preferred method of removing bot fly eggs these days is picking them off one by one, between my thumb and index fingernails. I resisted this method in the first place because it seemed like it would take forever. It does take a while, but it can be a lovely while.
Eddie likes to be petted.
My horse Eddie likes to be touched and stroked. When petted in long appreciative strokes, he will take a deep breath and put his ears forward and his eyes become soft. When I spend 10 minutes fussing over his legs taking the bot fly eggs off, he practically purrs. My cross ties are slack enough that he was able to bend his neck around and put his muzzle on the top of my head, where he breathed several long slow breaths in my hair.
After I was done with my task, we tacked up and went out for a hack. As we warmed up in walk, he swung along, confidently checking out the scenery, and all was right in his world. Mine too.
This weekend’s horse adventure was to ride in the Herwig Radnetter clinic at Wildwood Hills put on by the Iowa Lipizzan Association. I’d heard that Mr. (Herr?) Radnetter, of the Spanish Riding School (SRS), was an excellent teacher. He’d been teaching annually in our area of Iowa for the last three years. My friend Susan, the immutable force behind Catalpa Corner Charity Horse Trial, proclaimed one day that I needed to ride Fabulouso in the clinic. She said it was time to see if I could make a foray into Real Dressage Land, continue to expand my education (an addiction of mine), and perhaps not have the entire local dressage community be astonished that any horse allows me to swing a leg over them. Bottom line is that I pretty much do what Susan says, so I signed up for it. I’d have her horse, Fabulouso (aka Elliot or Fatboy), under tack. He classes up any joint, so I felt that if worse came to worse I could simply fade into the background and count on the mesmerizing effect of 1,000 years of German breeding oozing forth from Elliot’s genetic code. That was my plan, and he is always good with being adored, so we were all systems go.
German breeding on display and the monkey-in-the-tack basking in the glow at the Otter Creek Horse Trial:
I should explain about the “Fatboy” name. I’ve always liked off track thoroughbreds, so I’ve gleefully decorated our pasture with them and taught them all sorts of fun games, like eventing, foxhunting and dressage. Physically, the thoroughbreds all run a little lean, of course.
Then one day Susan suggested that I teach Elliot to event. So he came to our house for the winter. Hanovarians, to say the least, are a bit easier keepers than the usually high-metabolism off track thoroughbred. Elliot arrived in the autumn, just when we were starting the transition from pasture to a lovely part grass/mostly alfalfa hay mix for the winter. All the thoroughbreds stayed in work and held weight beautifully through the fall and winter months. The warmbood, Elliot, stayed in work as well, and held weight spectacularly, shall we say exponentially. That winter in the frozen tundra of our pasture we had a group of fit, fuzzy, slightly angular tbs and one grinning bay marshmallow with whiskers.
Susan shows her love with food. Every time I visit her house, I have to go on a week-long workout program to mitigate the effect of the deliciousness she provides everyone within her sphere of influence. With this mindset, she fretted over Elliot’s weight all winter long, since it was one of the first winters he was going to be in significant work. The emails went back and forth. “Is he holding weight?” “Yep, just fine.” <two weeks> “How’s Elliot’s weight? I could bring over some hay.” “Lookin’ a little pudgy.” <three weeks> “With all this riding, is he doing ok with holding weight?” “Ok, Susan, I’ll fess up, around here we call him ‘Fatboy’.” “Super!”
Susan Brigham's Fabulouso, aka Fatboy aka Elliot.
Time passes, we do some prelim level events, the AECs, develop a partnership and represent ourselves pretty well. So now Fatboy and I were riding in the Herwig Radnetter of the SRS (still pretty cool to me) clinic in front of much of the local dressage community, who, I suppose, consider me a bit of a wild child eventer/foxhunter sort, which I would have trouble effectively arguing in any court. However, truth is, that I am able to do those things reasonably well because I base all my training in dressage principles. So the foxhunters think I’m a dressage queen, and the dressage people think I’m a foxhunter wildthing. All good, call me anything, just don’t call me late to go riding. As an aside, you can read a fairly hilarious “she must be from another country” critique by Geo. Morris about this picture.
The lesson with Herwig Radnetter was great, but not in the way I expected it to be. He talked about all the things that you’d expect-position, engagement, connection, a cajole about the fact that I didn’t clean my tack that week (guilty!), rhythm, balance, transitions and more. But the one concept that stuck in my head was ‘Playful’. He was saying this in reference to rein contact. In that lovely light Austrian (German?) accent with a faint smile on his face. When he said it I didn’t know precisely what he meant, as in what exactly a Playful thing to do with the reins is. But I did know the feeling of Playful, so I went with it.
“Rounder, rounder, rounder and playful with the reins”.
I was getting somewhere with it and we were all three moderately happy with the work, but Herwig said that he would ride the horse. Interestingly, he didn’t ask. I didn’t mind, so that worked out well for both of us. He got on and even though Fatboy is mesmerizing, I focused on what Herwig was doing with his rein contact. He was doing all the things we know already to do: still outside hand, active inside leg (but I note even the leg was Playful but without the prodding busyness we see sometimes). The inside hand was also still for the most part, but there was definitely a give and take in showing the horse what was appropriate. At some point during the lesson he said the ubiquitous “We do not pull” which we’ve all heard a hundred times. But now I finally understood that we can take momentarily, but the big brother of “take momentarily” which is pull, is not the answer. “Quicker and smoother and the release is The Thing.”
This can be an epiphany for riding. To know that you can take, but you can not pull. To be playful. Think of two kids playing with a toy together. It is fun when one interacts with the other by good-naturedly and momentarily taking the toy toward himself with a smile and a sparkle in his eye. The other kid laughs and takes the toy back toward himself and the first kid acquiesces because he knows it is a game and the interaction joyfully continues. If, however, one kid grabs the toy with a stern expression and pulls it toward himself in an effort to overpower the will of the other, resistance ensues. Whether the two interactions, which are essentially the same, are resistant and angry — or flowing and joyful –is a matter of intent.
Rounder, Rounder, Rounder, Playful, Playful. When it echoes in my head, it comes out as lovely gratitude in my horses.
Do you have scripts in your head that show in your horse when you ride with them in mind? What are they?
Sammy and I at a check on a hunt in TMH's beautiful Grand River fixture
Catalpa Corner Charity Horse Trial had a fairly tough training level xc course over the weekend. I had entered my developing horse, Sammy, in his first horse trial there, and walking the course I felt like we probably were prepared, but that it would take some riding to get it done. Sammy and I had done a lot of foxhunting together, which always makes me feel confident. I really get to know horses when I foxhunt them for a season or two. They say foxhunting is like war, but with only half the danger. The experience of going through the excitement and the tedium of live foxhunting bonds us like men who spent time in foxholes together-we’d never ask the other to do anything we wouldn’t do for them and we’ve got each other’s backs.
We’d also taken care of the technical side of things, with dressage, xc and showjumping schooling of course. We’d done a schooling horse trial at another park at training level and done very well. So, I thought we were prepared and didn’t lose any sleep on Friday night.
Saturday morning’s dressage went fine and after a few hours’ break we were warming up for xc. Sammy’s not much for show nerves, and galloping all over God’s creation on a hunt with 30 of his closest horse pals all winter makes the xc warmup chaos feel like old home week. So, having warmed up, we trotted down to the start box. Since this was only his second horse trial (the first being the schooling horse trial a few weeks before), he stood in the start box without much of a clue as to what was coming next. So I enjoyed the quiet time, which I know won’t last. When he has a few more horse trials under his belt, he will know exactly what a start box means and start revving up the engine there. I enjoyed the peace while I had it.
3, 2, 1 go! Have a good ride! And off we went. Sammy picked up a very nice hand gallop, taking in the scenery, and I got the feeling he was thinking there might be hounds to follow nearby. When I mentioned to him that there was a nice log jump ahead, he switched his focus to it and, though we were 10 strides out, he threw all his legs forward for exactly one stride, (it would have gotten a nice reining score I think) then immediately continued cantering. I heard a rapid conversation from his head, “What? There’s no fenceline, what’s with the jump? Oh, yep, I can do that.” He went down and popped over the log pile.
On to fence two, a shiny maximum height pheasant feeder. He cantered hesitantly down to it, felt extra wobbly at the second to last instant and exercised his right to wobble decisively left. I could have stuffed him over it, I think, but I didn’t want him to have an awkward jump and scare himself. I exercised my right to tap him on the butt once with the crop, gave him a second to reset his mind, re-presented to the fence and hopped right over the pheasant feeder on try 2. Next, through the small creek (an easy deal for a foxhunter) and on to the barn jump. He cantered on down to that and sailed it. He’d seen this fence’s identical twin on the course 2 weeks ago, so he was good with that. Canter up the hill and up the bank. This was more like it for him. Terrain issues are a foxhunter’s forte’. He took that bank like a professional and now he was getting in a bit of a rhythm.
Canter down the hill and up the next and on to the skinny chevron. I had wondered how this one was going to go when I walked the course because some horses don’t think they will fit between trees like this. I had one horse who actually jumped a 5′ showjumping standard in a clinic when the clinician set a skinny showjump. The horse was sure he would not fit between them, but didn’t like to stop or runout, so, very logically, he jumped the standard. His rider managed to stay in the tack by sheer benevolence of the Universe and the horse staying straight upon landing. Had he done any minor squiggle in the first two strides after the fence, I’d have been a lawn dart. Good man. So I cantered down to the skinny chevron with a leg on, but wondering how this might go. Sammy jumped it straight and true, no muss no fuss. Yay Sammy, because the next fence was a bending line two stride log combination in the woods. There was a lot of talk about the combination on course walks. There was walking and rewalking the center distance, the inside distance, the outside distance. As for me, I loved the combination, nice round logs, good footing, nice distance right down the middle, nice size. And voi la! Sammy agreed. Smoked on over that combination. Good man.
Trakehner. "Did you know there's a ditch under that?"
Next a let-up coop that rode easily and then down to the trakehner. He’s done trakehners before, but still he was a little rattled early in the course and, though he was doing really well, trakehners are still funny things to horses. He cantered down to it and at the last minute turned left exclaiming, “Camie, did you know there is a ditch under there? I’ve got a solution for us. Let’s go this way instead! Look, no ditch!” I think I actually giggled a little. I know he can jump the height and I know he learns quickly, so I took a breath, gave him a pet, walked a few steps away, picked up a canter and asked him to have a try again. He jumped it perfectly.
That was a turning point. I think I heard an audible “click”. He figured out that the easiest and most fun thing is to go over whatever is in front of him. “Ohhhhhh. I get the game.” It was really cool. In that instant, I knew the rest of the course was going to be pure fun. He dropped into the water like a star. Did the barrels in perfect stride, the combination felt like a gymnastic and we went down the down steps, both grinning like crazies.
The steeplechase fence rode just like a real steeplechase fence, forward and confident. The corner was easy and then on to the coffin complex.
Ok, this picture is from last year's prelim. Replace the coop with a table and put the c element to the left a bit and you have the training coffin 2010. There's a creek between the two jumps.
On the course walk, I was a little concerned about the coffin. I jump judged it last year and I’d seen some inexperienced horses come up to the first element, start to jump, see the water on the other side, stop jumping and slither on their front legs back down the jump. Faced with that, a few riders stayed on and a few ejected. No lasting harm to anyone.
So now I was cantering down to the same complex. But I was not on the same horse I’d started the course with. I was on One Who Got the Game. Even cantering down to it, I knew it would go well. He sailed over that table, took the creek in stride and actually locked on to the prelim C element. I had to pull him off and send him to the training C, which he sailed easily.
Next a coop. I giggled to myself coming down to it since a foxhunting friend of ours had remarked to herself about a coop on her course at a different horse trial. “It’s just a coop. We jump them all the time. No problem.” And promptly got eliminated at it on xc day. So I rode the coop properly and with respect and it went well.
Birdhouse rolltop. Built by husband Jay and sponsored by Julie Kuhle as a memorial to her bird-watcher mother. Lovely.
The new bench was a lark and it was great fun to jump the birdhouse, which had spent a few weeks being born in our garage a few winters ago and was delivered to the park in our horse trailer. And GREAT fun to jump. Then a nice big table, and pet and praise the horse through the finish flags.
The 10th place ribbon is a very pretty cornflower blue. And it was the Best. 52.8 penalty-ride. Ever.