Kickboxing Dressage Horses

Some of you may have seen this article before, which I wrote in 2008.  I am posting it now by request.

Completely gratuitous picture of Elliot  :-)

Completely gratuitous picture of Elliot ūüôā

Now into my 4th week of kickboxing, I see clearly that learning to kickbox is simply dressage for people.¬† It’s all about building strength and flexibility, but this time it is my job, not my horse’s, to do the physical work.¬† The trainer hasn’t yet uttered the term “gymnasticising”¬† but I have a suspicion she is thinking it.

I should have seen this epiphany coming.¬† On Day One, I was smugly confident that I, a former intercollegiate athlete afterall, would pick up this sissy-pants kickboxing in a snap.¬† Alas, pride goeth before a fall.¬† Five minutes into the class I was reduced to giggling at my coltish attempts to keep in step.¬† Occasionally off the beat, often with legs entangled, I began the journey as a goofy young horse–no balance, no muscle tone, but happy to go.

During this time, I relied heavily on my trainer.¬† The manner in which I looked to her is just as young horses look to us:¬† “Um, a little help?”¬† What elevated my favorite trainers was their gift for simply preparing me to succeed.¬† Perhaps as we were doing a side kick she’d say, “Forward kick in 3, 2, 1”, so that I could be thinking about how to change to the forward kick before I was asked to do it.¬† Transitions presented in this manner were simple and fun to perform.¬† If trainers did not give this “verbal half halt”, the transition would be disorganized and rushed.¬† Worse yet, repeated muffed attempts would leave me vaguely frustrated, and perceiving myself as incompetent.¬† I realize, with more than a little sadness, that I have felt horses experience this frustration with me.¬† The kickboxing horsie in me, and the grass-munching ones in my pasture, appreciate having a little “heads up”.

My inner horsie learns best with occasional praise.¬† As my legs flopped about, while my neighbors’ kicks snapped vividly, I was acutely aware that I was not competent.¬† From my viewpoint as I struggled, the best trainers responded by encouraging improvement rather then by highlighting shortcomings. Good trainers trust that people and horses would prefer to be competent, and therefore generously acknowledge improvement.¬† This tactic encouraged my inner horsie to strive more cheerfully and probably more effectively.

With some effort, I’m about a 2nd Level Kickboxing Dressage Horse these days.¬† Mostly balanced, and I have to admit, a little overconfident at times.¬† “Ah, yes, next comes the boxer’s hop and then a side kick,” says my presuming inner horsie.¬† When a front kick comes in where the side kick should have been, uppity inner horsie morphs to attentive inner horsie in a hoofbeat.¬† There’s nothing like a little variety to keep that inner horsie tuned in.

Timely half halts, honest praise and creative work.  Today I was a kickboxing dressage horse, and for me, that has made all the difference.

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Stopping horses in the hunt field

So tonight I spoke with a writer who will be interviewing several horse professionals concerning bits and foxhunting for an article in the Masters of Foxhounds beautiful publication, Covertside.  (Also on line as eCovertside).

Here are the notes I wrote up for her before we talked.  They are my thoughts on bitting and training horses and riders to do downward transitions in general.  They are in no particular order, but maybe you will find them interesting, useful or maybe a point to correct me on next time we meet.  Enjoy!

Horses stop because they were taught that they would get a release in their mouth when they react correctly with their feet. Bits don’t stop horses. ¬†Training stops horses.

Putting on a bigger bit when your horse is not acting as you wish is exactly as effective as shouting more loudly to someone who speaks another language.

Many horses brace, tighten and run from mouth pain. ¬†Then some riders think they need to turn up the bit severity and pull harder. ¬†Then the horse pulls harder in response. ¬†It becomes a spiral of increasing tension. ¬†If you turn down the bit severity, and spend a little time acclimating the horse to the new contract of “rider is light in the reins, horse is light in the bridle” horses can become less defensive and subsequently hear a softer message more easily. ¬†Often the answer is less bit and some rider help.

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kineton and snaffle

A kineton is another way to put a governor on bit pressure. ¬†When the kineton was first introduced, people thought it must be harsh because even the hardest pullers and bracers would respond better to the bit. ¬†It turns out the hardest pullers and bracers were the most sensitive and only pulling and bracing to protect their mouths. ¬†When they didn’t have to protect themselves from their mouth pain (because the kineton did), the riders got better results.

If you are using a curb with a chain, you may have better effect if you switch to a leather curb strap or add a rubber channel over the chain.  If you insist on using a curb chain only, the thoughtful way to do it is to twist it so that the chain lies flat.  A horse has many nerves that run in the chin groove and the best effect elicited there is with a gentle aid.

A horse stops best by using his hind end.  When riders signal a stop or downward transition by opening their hip angle, closing their thigh and engaging their core before using their hands, the horse has a shot at producing a balanced and expedient transition.

Gallops-XC-Fox-Pitt-BETH

WFP smokin’ the ditch and wall and rockin’ the grab strap

Wearing a grab strap saves accidently water-skiing off a horses’s mouth when going up hill or at other times when balance may be at issue. ¬†Pulling when you don’t mean to “wears out the brakes” just like over breaking in your car. ¬†William Fox Pitt, who has won the Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event several times, wears a grab strap.

Halting using only your hands (which only activates the bit) will produce a horse that stops on its forehand, in a heap. ¬†It feels like stopping a horse trailer with draft horses in it with only the truck brakes – the back end pushes the front and the stop takes longer. ¬†Or think about stopping a bicycle using only the front brakes – the back end comes up, the front end goes down. ¬†Brake too hard with the front only, and the back end comes over the front. ¬†This is the opposite effect of what we want in a downward transition. ¬†But, when a horse is allowed and encouraged to use his hind end to stop (by the rider opening her hip angle, closing her thigh and engaging her core and “stopping” herself before pulling on the reins) the transition feels like stopping a trailer when the trailer brakes are working perfectly, or like stopping a bike with the back brakes. ¬†The back end stays down and the front end stays relatively up. ¬†The transition feels, and indeed is, balanced, and is usually executed more quickly and with less fuss from the horse.

Land Rover Burghley HT and what I thought I knew

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This isn’t Burghley, it is Eddie and me at Fox River Valley PC HT, because I don’t have pictures of Burghley and the post needed brightening up and who doesn’t like to look at a pretty tb jumping? I do like Eddie’s form here. Knees up and bascule. Yay! I could have a more auto release, but not bad riding on the whole. (Yes, I have pictures of me riding perfectly badly. Gee I just can’t lay my hands on them…)

So the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials took place over Labor Day weekend.  Super cool event of course and amazing that ALL the rides are online on Burgley.tv, listed by name and phase.

So, of course, I’ve been watching them. ¬†All. ¬†In batches of three or four, in a spare moment on our smart tv (ok, which kicks serious booty, but it could also be done on any web-enabled computer) ¬†And this morning I learned that one thing I thought I knew for sure is, well, just flat out wrong.

Watch Ben Hobday’s ride on Guna Be Good. ¬†First of all, love that the horse is jacking around in the start box and Ben is like “Ho hum, another day at a four star.” ¬†Well done, Ben. ¬†There’s no need to add to the drama. ¬†Then off they go out of the start box and jump around the first two minutes quite beautifully. ¬†At around 3 minutes 30 seconds in, they are coming down to a HUGE white oxer. ¬†The thing is massive. ¬†The horse is cross cantering right on down to it. ¬†I braced myself. ¬†Of course a horse can’t jump a max 4* oxer from a cross canter. ¬†Everyone knows that. ¬†A cross canter takes a large part of their longitudinal power and sends it laterally – wasted into space. ¬†Guna Be Good and Ben Hobday don’t subscribe to that theory. ¬†The horse produced a beautiful jump, well up over the rails and cantered off like a champ.

The horse cow-cantered several more jumps on course. ¬†(A ‘cow canter’ is the same as a cross canter. ¬†This information is brought to you by my dear Daddy who grew up on a dairy farm and one day pointed out that holsteins always “cross canter”. ¬†Check it out next time you see a cow cantering somewhere. ¬†If you live somewhere where you only see cows on milk cartons, sorry for you. ¬†Try to get out more. ¬†ūüėČ ¬†) ¬† And the horse did a beautiful job over the fences.

So there’s my ‘Ah ha’ for the day: ¬†Probably a true canter is a better choice, but no reason to go to confession about the occasional cross canter coming down to a fence. ¬†I did not know that.

Other thought for the day: Watch a bunch of xc rides on Burghley tv and especially pay attention to what the riders do when they cross the finish line. ¬†They stay in two point, up off their horses’ backs, despite the fact that they just held two point for most of the 11+ minute trip around the course. ¬†They praise their horses. ¬†They get off as soon as they can. ¬†Brilliant horsemanship. ¬†If you want to be excellent, fill your mind with images like the riding and horsemanship seen at Burghley 2012.

I’m Camie and I’m a coke addict

Oooooh, icy cold deliciousness

Oh, how I loved the icy cold deliciousness of a coke in the morning. ¬†The sweet release of carbon when the can is opened, the sound of it pouring over ice and the quiet fizz as it sat by my computer. ¬†Sometimes I would buy a 32 0z. coke and sip it all morning. ¬†It was great. ¬†I wouldn’t get hungry at 10 a.m. if I had a 32 oz. coke there feeding sweet sugar into my veins all morning. ¬†Have a coke and a smile. ¬†I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. ¬†Coke is it!

I’d be driving in to work and thinking to myself, “I need a little treat.” ¬†Stop in at my favorite fuel station, talk and laugh with the attendants since by now I’d developed a relationship with them, fill my cup with cubed ice (not crushed!) and fill the plastic cup with the nectar of the gods. ¬†Enjoy all morning.

I never drank coke in the afternoon or evening.  It was a morning ritual for me.

And then one day I noticed how ridiculous it is for a college-educated extremely fortunate person to put high fructose corn syrup daily into my body.  It just finally made no sense.  I decided to quit.

I didn’t quit because continuing to drink soda would make me fat (though it would) or because my mom has Type II diabetes. ¬†I quit because I finally realized just how stupid it is to drink soda on a regular basis. ¬†There just is no redeeming quality in soda. ¬†I simply fell out of love with it.

It has been 12 days. ¬†Driving past my Quik Trip the first few times was really a challenge. ¬†I drove a new route to work. ¬†I also bought the kind of tea I like, even though it is more expensive than soda (which was my excuse for not buying it on a regular basis before. ¬†Lame-o.) ¬† I also had to start bringing a 10 a.m. snack, since I couldn’t rely on high fructose corn syrup to carry me to lunch. ¬†So I brought apples or pears or nuts. ¬†The first of the positive changes.

Then, since I had a healthy snack at 10 a.m. and didn’t have gut rot from all that soda, I felt like having a decent lunch. ¬†With the lack of morning caffeine and the more frequent healthy lunches, slowly but surely the afternoon crash I used to be able to set my watch by at 2:30 has dissipated. ¬†Another unanticipated bonus.

After a week off soda, I started to sleep through the night rather than having to get up and go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.  Maybe TMI, but also a bonus.

And other changes. ¬†I don’t have to carry my cans home for recycling, my teeth are whiter and I drink more water, which tastes better to me now for some reason.

But the best, THE BEST, was today. ¬†It was 78 degrees at our house today. ¬†The forecast for tomorrow is for 40 degrees and a rain/snow mix. ¬†Today I could wear a T-shirt and ride in the fields and woods near our house, tomorrow I will have to wear a sweatshirt and ride indoors (ok, that isn’t so bad either, but still, my point is that today was glorious weather for November 1st in the mid-latitudes). ¬†So I wanted to ride all four horses TODAY. ¬†I wasn’t tired. ¬†I didn’t hit the afternoon nap wall. ¬†I didn’t have to run in and go to the bathroom. ¬†I just rode 4 fabulous horses. ¬†I hacked all over southern Story county. ¬†I worked on connection, lengthenings, galloping, leg yields, you-name-it. ¬†They were all great.

Coke or this?

Charlie reminded me about the thrill of galloping.  Eddie aced the cavaletti.  Sammy is learning to let go in his poll and breathe.  And Elliot was the last to go.  Many is the time in the last year where I was too tired to ride the last horse.  Very disappointing and left a hangover of guilt along with the tiredness.  Not today.  Today I tacked up the last horse with ease, warmed up in the arena over the cavaletti and then out for a hack as the sun set.  Balanced canter and medium canter, joyful, springy goofy-warmblood trot.  Then a swinging walk the last quarter mile home.  I was the luckiest person on earth tonight.

All because of one change. ¬†I gave up coke because I decided it was a ridiculously stupid habit. ¬†I didn’t know how right I was until I stopped doing it.

Have you given up a bad habit and been pleasantly surprised by unanticipated horse-related repercussions? ¬†Maybe you have changed your diet specifically for your horse. ¬†I’d love to hear your experiences.


Sandhill dressage

The Eddie

Literally at the very last minute, while our truck, hitched to the trailer, was warming up in the driveway, I decided to take Eddie hunting instead of Charlie.  Charlie felt a little funny to me yesterday, nothing I could put my finger on, and since I had the option to take Eddie, I went with it.  Eddie’s had a difficult month and I thought having some fun on a foxhunting weekend might be just what the doctor ordered.

So we loaded up and traveled the 6 hours to the sandhills of northern Nebraska for a weekend with our hunt, North Hills Hunt.  We put Eddie and Sammy,

Sammy, early morning showjumping in 2010

Jay’s ride for the weekend, in a paddock at the Rodeo Grounds in Burwell, NE, home of Iowa’s biggest rodeo.  The dazzling extravagance of pipe fences around a weedy sandlot would be home for the weekend.  They were cool with it.  They rolled in the sand and got weeds in their manes and tails, grinning and exclaiming that they were now Real Rodeo Horses.  Perfect, we’ve arrived.

Nebraska Sandhills

The sandhills of northern NE are basically an ancient desert, dunes now held in place by a sparse grass exoskeleton.  The sandhills are a fantasy land for riding horses.  Most landowners own vast stretches in the area because, with the sparse grass, that is what it takes to run cattle, the primary interest of the ranchers in the area.  If you get permission to ride the ground of 3 or 4 ranchers, you have a day’s trot to get from one end to the other.  But you won’t be able to do it, because this is the sandhills, and they aren’t just whistling dixie about that.  If you wanted to put some condition on yourself and your event horse, a week or two out here would do it.


Speck surveying the Burwell landscape in 2006

In Eddie’s work at home, we have been focusing on suppleness and elasticity, both laterally and longitudinally.  Job One, though, is longitudinal Рover his topline.  His busy thoroughbred brain has him always thinking, analyzing, wondering, hoping, commenting and more.  He’s a chattering squirrel of mental activity.  He translates this wealth of drama into his body.  He stores it at the base of his neck, which he raises and tightens and then very cleverly squeezes it with the strength of a python out through his poll.  He has then become Rock Hard Monster Horsie.  Monster Horsie never uses this power for evil, but what would happen if he could use all that drama-muscle for good?

This was my experiment for the weekend then, to see if Monster Horsie energy could be harnessed for better movement or more suppleness or perhaps powering a small city.

I want to make it clear that I had a great time hunting.  I watched hound work, I rode beautiful country, I managed to be useful to the hunt a time or two when asked and I chatted with friends at appropriate moments.  But, in the same manner that a computer can run one program in the foreground and another in the background as we work, Eddie’s longitudinal suppleness was always running in the background of my mind.

As we trotted out to the fixture in the morning, I focused on elastic contact.  When he (predictably) tightened his poll, lifted his neck and dropped his back, I kept my leg on, kept the contact and waited him out until he relaxed the muscles that were causing him to go inverted.  He relaxed.  It lasted about 2 seconds.  He tightened, so I kept my leg on, let the contact passively resist until he softened, and then I immediately focused on being elastic again.  Yay, it lasted 3 seconds.  Lather, rinse, repeat for two hours.  Sometimes the softening of his topline would last for 2 minutes, sometimes it would last for 4 seconds.  It was not a linear process by any stretch of the imagination. I consciously avoided attaching any significance to the length of time he stayed loose over his topline.  Any proper step from him was welcome and any tightening was passively-resisted without assigning judgement or emotion to it.  I doubt anyone in the hunt field knew (or cared, they were hunting after all!) about the conversation Eddie and I were having.

What was happening was that he was learning to use different muscles.¬† Rather than pulling himself with tension from the front, he was encouraged to relax, get out of his own way, engage his hind end and push over his topline.¬† The terrain was helping, too.¬† As he was invited to change his balance while conquering hills and avoiding ruts made in the sand by the cattle, I think I heard him whisper, ‚ÄúAha! I think I get it. ¬†This kinda works better.‚ÄĚ

He felt taller, and lighter on his feet.  In the best moments, I reveled in the power surging from his hocks across the live wire of the longissimus dorsi of his back under the saddle.  A live trampoline had been placed where once a tight hammock had been.

Sometimes a riding breakthrough occurs when I look very carefully at a problem with full attention, and work diligently to fix it.  Sometimes I have been the benefactor of some wisdom from a particularly insightful instructor, a good book or article, or thoughtful judge.  But sometimes, like finding a faint constellation in the night sky, the solution reveals itself when I don’t strive to find it, but rather use my peripheral vision, wait, and allow it to appear.

‚ÄúSeems easier to push than to let go and trust, but it‚Äôs alright.‚Ä̬† Indigo Girls, It‚Äôs Alright.

Just do it

I got the ginger chicken started and moved on to the 45 minute simmering process. ¬†Too long to hang out, but usually too short to ride. ¬†But it was a fabulous fall day and we have horses (and riders!) that need to get foxhunting fit. ¬†So hubby and I went out, ran a brush over the pretty-clean-already horses, picked hooves, tacked up and still had 39 minutes to ride. ¬†(Ok, maybe we could actually eek out 45 minutes yet, it wasn’t going to spoil supper to have it simmer an extra few minutes)

Ok, this is a winter sunset, but work with me here, it was pretty tonight too.

So, off we went on a hack. ¬†I should be clear that these horses live out at pasture and are moving around all the time. ¬†They don’t require the same warmup that a stalled horse might. ¬†We walked for two minutes and then picked up a nice working trot for about half a mile of field edges, a bit of gravel road, over a bridge and into the CRP for a nice long canter. ¬†What a spectacular sunset, all the better when viewed from the back of a horse. We continued on our 2.5 mile loop, trotted toward home, walked the last bit, scrubbed their faces with the rubber scrubbie, gave them a thank you pat and cookie, turned them out and went in for supper.

So, their tails weren’t perfect today and we didn’t clean the tack at the end. No we didn’t have them inspection-clean. ¬†Would we be this cavalier every day? ¬†Um, not so much. ¬†Was it infinitely better than watching Cash Cab while we waited for the chicken to cook? ¬†You betcha.

From the Start

End of test at Otter Creek HT

The horse chiropractor was supposed to come today but he was a bit late. ¬†Ok, he was 2 hours late. ¬†God love him, he is the best I have ever seen work on a horse, judging from the horses’ expressions, but he has almost literally no sense of time. ¬†Well, I knew that, which is why I had the appointment scheduled at my house instead of at the clinic – so that I could ride or putter about the place while I waited.

So I rode a training horse, who was a champion in ignoring the snapping drapes (partial roll-up sides on the arena) in the 45 mph wind, puttered about the barn doing some sweeping and doing a little tack cleaning. ¬†I didn’t want to tack up another horse, get into a ride and then have the chiropractor arrive 10 minutes into the ride, when I would have to stop. ¬†Well, then I got a call that we would have to postpone the chiro visit until tomorrow.

So, I tacked up Eddie and rode during the time that I had set aside to be with the chiropractor. ¬†This meant that I had two and half hours! ¬†I don’t know about your life, but found time is rockin’ to me. ¬†So I tacked up. ¬†I got to thinking about the weekend and the basic difficulty we were having – tightness over the topline. ¬†It was directly mentioned in the dressage test, it played a roll in the turn (or non turn) to the corner on xc, and it played a big roll in showjumping. ¬†The judge’s comments on our dressage test had also pointed out a lack of acceptance of the bridle and acceptance of the leg. ¬†Very good points. ¬†We went back to square one. ¬†We started with walk and halt, and spent about half an hour on that. ¬†Then on to walk trot, and after another quiet half hour had that mostly in hand. ¬†Canter work is not even close, but we had a few moments of Not Bad. ¬†The best part of the whole day was that the number of relaxed breaths from Eddie dramatically outnumbered the tension snorts that he will let out when confused.

Much praise and done for the day. ¬† We’re on the road back.