Look what I found!

Our friend the SI joint

So I lost my sitting trot.  I lost it honestly, by, as my niece would say, “being chucked from a horse” when he rapidly decelerated in front of a jump.  I injured my sacroilliac joint which, frankly, is literally a pain in the a$$. Until you injure your SI joint, you won’t fully appreciate its role in your happiness and comfort.  A pair of happy SI joints makes for a happy girl, ok, that’s just me lately, but I’m just sayin’, be happy if yours work right.

Now that I am mostly recovered, thanks to rest, chiropractic and a very understanding massage therapist, I am back in the saddle.

This is not my butt, but that was definitely the owie spot.

The difficulty in riding again when I was first back in the saddle was what you would expect – a very strong feeling that I did not want to be jostled or fall off.  But that passed in time and then I started getting back to the more technical challenges of riding.  The most distressing thing was that I’d lost my sitting trot. Rats.  Sitting trot is one of my favorite things about riding.  Oh, wait, everything is my favorite thing about riding.  Well, you get the idea. Sitting trot was easy and fun.  The first part of the video below is a good example of fun in sitting trot with Eddie the Wonderful.


Let it be noted here that I am a bit of a details person about my riding technique.  The more I learn about what works and what doesn’t, the more I realize that riding is a game of centimeters, not even inches. Probably, for those folks who ride at a very high level, it is a game of millimeters.  The angle of the thigh, the use of the abdomen, everything, all very precise without tightness.  The difference between what a horse responds to and what he interprets as physical chatter is very subtle indeed.

So, when I say I lost my sitting trot this means that it simply wasn’t as connected as it was before.  There wasn’t flopping about or major tension, but the connection I had with my seat  before the SI injury was far superior to what I was producing after the injury.

I decided not to get emotional about it (because I sure was tempted to go down that path.  You know the one, the hairy gnome in your brain says things like, “Oh, you’re just getting older and it may not come back” and icky things like that) and just go the scientific exploration route.  Dr. Spock goes riding.  So I started to explore what I was doing differently to make the seatbone connection be intermittent rather than full-time.  The first thing that caught my attention was that my legs were not as long, I was pulling up from my hips a bit.  Focusing on stretching through my leg was helpful, but even after a day or two of attention to that, it was clear that was not the entire answer.

So I took some more time to really notice what my body was doing that might be getting in the way of real seat connection.  Not surprisingly, I was holding in my lower back.  Duh, I know, I should have figured that out right away, but I was a little too close to the problem to see it.  Since the SI joint hurt so much less, I hadn’t really entertained the thought that it still hurt some and I was protecting it.

When I asked my kind horses to slow down their trots until I could learn to relax and follow again, things became easier.  I did a lot of short periods of sitting trot, interspersed with walk and canter breaks, including 2 point in all gaits.  I was as kind to my body as I would be to a horse I was rehabilitating.  Lots of breaks, exercising only to slight fatigue of the injured area and taking every other or third day off.  And whaddya know, it works.  Tonight I trotted around on the wonder warmblood in all his fabulousness in lengthening and we were connected again.  It just fell into my lap.

And once again I realized that when I pay attention to the details and get them right, big good things come in their natural course.

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Playful, playful

Fabulouso and Camie at the Radnetter clinic

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?

Corn and Conscious Competence

Eddie the horse in corn

Eddie the 17h tb says, "Knee high by the Fourth of July?"

I was out on a hack today with my eventer, Eddie.  We do a lot of hacking around for conditioning on the land our kind neighbors allow us to ride.  Most of it is CRP ground, but there are a few short stretches of  crop ground we sometimes pass through.  This spring it was easy to hack on down between the corn rows, avoiding the small plants, but in the last week, aided by a lot of rain and then a week of sun, the corn has shot up to the extent that 17h Eddie found himself having to stretch his neck up in order to see anything in the sea of cloying corn leaves.

Temple Grandin wrote a great book called Animals in Translation.  One of the many theories she puts forth in the book basically says that the lighter-built animals within a type of animal are generally more sensitive and quick-to-react to outside stimuli than their heavier-built counterparts.  I tend to think of the more reactive animals as “brighter” though I note that I don’t mean this to mean more intelligent.  I think of those animals that are slower to react as “duller”, and this does not imply less intelligent, just less reactive.  So, for instance in dogs, a greyhound might be considered brighter than a newfoundland and a draft horse might be considered duller than an arab, just on Temple’s theory alone.  Temple goes on to say that the lighter animals within a breed are usually brighter too.  So a spindly-legged tb could be predicted to be brighter than a more solid-type tb.  This holds true in my experience in general and in my barn at the moment.  Charlie, our foxhunter, is a bigger, heavy tb, still purebred, just heavier-boned, and he’s just as steady and sweet as the day is long, and he’s not given to over-reaction.  Eddie is a skinny, long-legged, long-necked wisp of a narrow tb and he is as bright as they come.  He is given to Anxiety Groans when he is uncomfortable or doesn’t understand things and I guarantee that if there ever really IS a mountain lion near us, he won’t be the one it gets.

So, now I’m on a hack with Eddie the Bright in a cornfield up to his ears, with the leaves pressing against his body from muzzle to croup, withers to hooves.  He gets light on his feet.  He lets out his Anxiety Groan. He breathes faster.  He champs at the bit and his pace quickens.  I simply put him in a shoulder fore (really, it’s no problem, the corn row limits the angle, like bumpers in a bowling alley) and let the distraction of its effort, combined with a consciously relaxed elbow, quiet hugging leg and steady breathing, settle him.  He gets to the other side with little problem.

Eddie’s little moment of anxiety, though, reminded me of the progression of learning how to ride.  When I was a kid, I had the Greatest Shetland Pony in the World, apparently, judging from all the horror stories I hear of other peoples’ experiences with shetlands.  Cricket and I spent many afternoons playing cowboys and indians with my sister and  her horse, who was born at our house and who we imaginatively named Grasshopper, since, if you have a Cricket, you obviously need also a Grasshopper.  We were 8 and 14, and thought we were clever.  Oy.  Anyway, a favorite tactic of Cricket and I was to enter a cornrow at the end and pretty much gallop down it to get away from my marauding sister on her much faster horse who was too wide to follow.  Cricket was entirely unfazed by the lack of visibility, swinging corn ears and pressing leaves as we bucketed down the row, partly because he knew I would pick something delicious for him to eat once we escaped the marauder.

Then I had my friend Ruth out and we went for a ride, me on Cricket and her on Mariah, a big, kind morgan we had.  Mariah was a beautiful, well-mannered bay, and quite tolerant.  So I was surprised when I led Ruth, trotting down the corn row, only to be rapidly passed by a white-eyed Mariah and clutching, shrieking Ruth.  I had no idea that the claustrophobia of the leaves and the lack of ability to see over them could cause a horse to do that.  At that moment I became aware of my incompetence.  The first step in learning is Unconscious Incompetence where I had merrily lived before that moment.  I had been enjoying, unaware, the benevolence of the Sprites Who Protect the Ignorant.   Now I was in the land of Conscious Incompetence, with all the heaviness-of-being it brought.  Conscious Incompetence, to me, was extremely uncomfortable and I had to move on ASAP.

Ruth was a farmkid with good balance and a heckova good sporting sense of humour.  Mariah’s eyes popped back into her head as soon as she got out of the corn, and we had a nice day of it, other than the niggling thought in the back of my head concerning the fact that I had no idea in my 8 year old brain how to teach Mariah to not be scared of the corn.  And I really wanted her to not be scared of the corn.  So I read books and asked anyone who might know how I might desensitize the mare to the corn.  I learned some tricks and slowly desensitized her and she was ok to walk in the corn, but not trot or canter like Cricket.  I had to get more tools.  But where?  The people I knew were fresh out of ideas and probably wondered why I was so obsessed with cantering a horse down a corn row anyway.  My little brain said that if Cricket could, somebody had to have taught him.  I’d never seen a horse just canter down a corn row by himself, so somebody had to have taught him, I reasoned.  (Ok not entirely logically sound, I know, since most horses don’t have the opportunity or reason to canter down a corn row, but I never got that far in my little kid reasoning.)

About the same time, I started taking dressage lessons, after a fashion.  Since I was more wild child pony jockey than classical equestrian, my instructor spent a fair amount of time frowning and teaching me circles and how to carry my hands.  One day though, I must have finally gotten somewhere close to getting it, or simply bored her silly.  She started talking about bending the horse on a straight line.  Shoulder in, haunches in, shoulder fore, haunches out.  We just brushed the surface in that night’s lesson, but I was on fire.  Now again I hit the books and quizzed whoever I could to learn more.  By my next lesson I was doing a fair shoulder in, that actually made my instructor smile.  The little wild child monkey might not be a complete waste of space in the lesson.  It took every ounce of my brain energy to get my body and the horse’s body to do what I had read about and was picturing and practicing at home, but by jiminy, her smile said I was doing it or something in the same zip code as it.  Welcome to the world of Conscious Competence.  In this place we master, on fledgling wings, what we later will do without thinking, with ease, as muscle memory does its magic.  This place of Conscious Competence is a land of private work that happens only between the rider’s ears.  No instructor can do this for her rider.  The work of Conscious Competence is the basis for the axiom, “Princes learn no art truly, but the art of horsemanship. The reason is, the brave beast is no flatterer.”

I soon learned the power and usefulness of being able to influence the individual parts a horse’s body.  When a horse’s body is yielding to the rider’s leg, and when his poll is relaxed, it is easier for him to stay mentally with the rider and to relax.  If the horse and rider are trained properly, they can communicate in times of crisis, such as when a horse can’t see over the corn leaves and they are being touched all over by the leaves.  I could put Mariah in shoulder in in the little grass paddock we had, could I do it in a corn row when she got worried?  The short answer was no, not for quite a while.  I needed to have the connection without effort, to have it in my muscle memory.  Unconscious Competence comes to those who are motivated to put in the work, and time is undeniably an element of work.  It took a lot of practice in the arena before our communication was good enough to be helpful to the horse in an anxious situation.  But it did come for us, and it was really fun to canter a big horse down the corn row!

Whatever you want to do, be fearless.  Be hungry, try, make mistakes, endure setbacks.  Celebrate every victory.  Learn from every setback.  Put your eye on the prize and do not take it off.  The beauty of Conscious Competence is that it dances with the one that paid the cab fare.   Do you have the change?