Inside leg

Charlie and I on a recent hunt. Yes, we're both very tall. He's 17 hands, I'm 6'3". My friend and her horse are normal-sized.

I haven’t had an unsound horse for a long time – until recently.  Now I have two on the injured reserve stall rest list.  Charlie and Sammy.  The prognosis is good for both of them.  We’ve now done the first 10 days of strict stall rest, the week of stall rest plus 10 minutes of hand-walking per day and now we are on to stall rest with 15 minutes of walking, this time mounted.  I’ll admit, I had some trepidation about getting on Charlie, a thoroughbred who, a few years ago, had a habit of bucking and now had a few weeks of stall rest under his girth.

But he was an angel.  Never set a foot wrong.  Of course, the horse that I thought would be easy peasy, Sammy, started with a humped-up back and had a few moments of corkscrew ears and some mumbling about how he could buck and he was a wild, wild horse.  Yeah.  Wild Sammy.  You can stop that now.

He didn’t buck, by the way.    Contrary to his wonted bad boy image, he’s a good man.  Sammy at an eventer derby

Anyway, now I am walking the two goofballs around the indoor for 15 minutes per horse every day.  It just so happens that these days I am also reading Charles De Kunffy’s book Training Strategies for Dressage Riders (on my rockin’ Kindle Fire, that thing is just stupid cool).  So I’ve got 30 minutes of walk to do and I start fooling around with CDK’s comments on use of the rider’s legs.  He says the inside leg is the driving leg and the outside leg is the guarding leg when asking for a bend.

So I walk and walk around the arena on a loose rein thinking about this.  Of course, the first time I put my leg on to play with it, each fresh horsie decides this is an invitation to trot.  Hmmm.  No, not the right button.  So then I make sure not to drop my leg back even an inch, but use it more straight toward the girth, leading with my ankle bone.  That got me leg yield.  Hmmmm, right idea, but not quite.  So I walked around a little more and thought about it.  Maybe if I…  What about if…

Sammy, in case you don't follow video links.

So I got to thinking about using my whole inside leg, from the hip down.  This would have to be without pinching with the knee. With my long-legged conformation it is not possible to use my lower calf/ankle, while keeping my knee against the saddle, so I keep my calf on and allow the knee to come off the saddle if necessary, but usually it is just a softening of its contact with the saddle.

After performing this thought experiment, I gave it a try.  What I noticed was that when I used my whole leg, my seat bones were more precisely placed and probably clearer to the horse.  I got really cool results.  The first night, after a few wobbles and comedies of errors, I could do a large figure 8 in my arena using only seat aids.  It was terrific!  The second night, not really believing this was possible – maybe the horses were so smart they were memorizing the pattern – I threw in a random circle.  Sure enough it worked.  Then I started playing with different-sized circles.  Some learning curve there, and after what has now been an hour of walking around, I am getting a handle on that.

But back to CDK’s idea of the inside leg being the driving aid.  Turns out that when I use that leg in a more energetic manner (still quiet and rhythmic, but a bit more emphatically) I get a tighter turn that remains in balance.  In retrospect, this makes perfect sense.  Look at the reach from the inside hind on this horse learning canter pirouette.

Solstice lunar eclipse

Long-legged turtle-necked horses of the arctic

Winter is a great time for a lot of things but, quite disappointingly, naked pagan dancing is not one of them.  Cold weather and Seinfeldian shrinkage notwithstanding, tonight is the best opportunity for naked pagan dancing in winter in 372 years.  Why? Because tonight, starting at 00:33 CST a lunar eclipse will occur on a solstice.  That hasn’t happened since 1638 – pretty cool. NASA’s page about it is excellent.  My goodness, Dr. Tony Phillips is a scientist who can write concisely and understandably, and apparently he knows some good graphic artists.

So what do I plan to do with this information?  Well, I’ve been watching the visible satellite at intervals today to see if there is even a chance at a clear sky tonight. Visible satellite images are for total weather geeks, as we know that the usual satellite images that you see on television are infrared (IR) satellite images, which are really an indication of the temperature of cloud tops, which are then represented by differing shades of white.  Pooh pooh, IR is not real data.  Visible satellite imaging is ground truth.  Ok, cloud truth.  However, weather geek strategy falls to dust when the sun goes down, since visible satellite is just that, a visible picture of clouds taken from a geosynchronous satellite 36k km above the earth.  When the sun goes down, the clouds are not visible.  Wah.  But I digress.

Anyway, there appears to be a break, or at least a thinning of the clouds that may pass over our house in central Iowa just around the right time.  So, here’s my plan.  Set the alarm for 00:25, put on boots and a big coat over my jammies and go out on the deck and watch the earth’s shadow take the first small bite out of the bright white disk of the moon.  Then I’ll probably watch that for a bit.  Snap a few pictures.  Then I’ll get sleepy and go lie on the couch for a few hours.  Then the alarm goes off again at 0300, when I will get up and put on really warm clothes and take a few pictures of what should be a blood red moon.  I’ll go out and see what the horses are doing.  I love any excuse to walk out to the pasture  in the quiet of night and be with the boys.  Maybe they’ll be in the barn, where they can come and go at will.  I love that they’ll probably be awake as day, the same way they are dozey as night at 10 a.m. everyday.  Their sleep cycles aren’t like ours.  They don’t stay up 16 hours straight and sleep 8.  They like it best to stay awake 3 hours and sleep 30 minutes or something.  I once had an off track thoroughbred who laid down in his stall and fell into a deep doze between dressage and xc at his first show.  He popped awake for xc and galloped like a metronome around the course.  King of the catnap.  Crazy.

With all the puttering around tonight, maybe I’ll be a little tired tomorrow.  Maybe I’ll have to sneak off for a catnap.  I guess I’ll be sleeping like a horse.  Enjoy.

The cooler side of horses

Bot fly eggs on a horse's front leg

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.

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?

Best. 52.8 penalties. Ever

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.

skinny chevron

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.

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?

Jumping the oxer backwards

Sammy and Camie jumping a vertical the correct way... Barbara Hall Photo

The course at the schooling show called for jumping a single vertical, roll back left to another vertical, bending line to an oxer, then left to a vertical with a big puddle that strongly suggested it be jumped well left of center.  After that another  rollback left.  It was about 90 degrees with high humidity and I’d done a pretty good job of keeping myself and my horses hydrated and well rested.  I was pretty proud of myself for finally implementing the plan to keep us all doing well.  My dad, a dairyman in his youth, always said, “Take care of the stock before you take care of yourself.”  That’s a really good plan until the person taking care of the stock passes out from heat exhaustion and then there’s no one left to take care of the stock.  My Dad was great and I still love him silly, but I’ve lately subscribed to the flight attendant mantra:  put on your own gas mask first before assisting others.  So gatorade, water and snacks are always with me at horse shows and I take them in freely at the same time my horses are refreshing themselves.

So I can’t blame what happened at the schooling show on dehydration or heat exhaustion, but it makes for plausible shorthand if needed.  The real story is a little more involved and more fun.  We were doing the training level combined test. Dressage had gone well, with my up-and-comer, Sammy, coming within a point of my prelim horse, Eddie, who was doing the show mostly on a tune-up lark.  I was delighted with both of their tests.  On to showjumping.

Since it was a small schooling show, it was my choice which of the horses to ride first.  I decided to ride Sammy, since I would have a little more time to warm up the first horse I rode.  I was the only entrant at that height, 3’3″, and it turned out I was the last to go in the only ring that still had classes running in it.  The show staff were politely, but periodically, looking at their watches.  I had both horses tacked up and ready to go when they had the course set, and a friend was holding Eddie while I rode Sammy.  I entered the ring after a brief warmup and Sammy felt great.  He picked up a lovely balanced canter, the buzzer sounded and off we went over fence one.  Roll back to fence 2, bending line to the oxer, no sweat.  Turn left to the puddle fence, where the trouble began.  I hadn’t walked the course because 1) the footing at the show was generally great, despite the 2″ of rain that fell overnight; 2) I was confident in my horses at the height, and  3) I didn’t have opportunity to walk the course due to having ridden another dressage test on Eddie for practice at 2nd level just minutes before.   Those are my excuses and I’m sticking with them.

So now I was faced with jump 4 and the big puddle.  The obvious solution was to jump it left of center, from the beach, rather than the tidewater.  I asked Sammy for a few steps left in canter, a cross between half pass and please-get-left-quick-horsie.  He was fabulous about it, kept the rhythm, jumped neatly out of stride and we landed, yay, and having accomplished that, I immediately blanked regarding what the next fence might be.  The puddle had surprised me and I’d used all my available brain space to get the horse to a good spot to deal with it and I could not for the life of me think where to go next.

At one  point early in my riding career, faced with the same difficulty of having no living clue what the next fence was, I’d actually stopped the mare I was on to take a quick look around, figured it out, picked up a canter and finished the course.  I thought I was so clever to buy myself some time!  I quickly learned that stopping, even unrelated to a fence, was counted as a refusal in showjumping.  D’oh!  The agony!  An honest-to-the-TD, skidding, rail-splintering crash of a refusal is one thing, but being assessed the penalty for a refusal without a really good story is just not palatable.  So, rather than go wimpering down in a mewling penalty at this show, I figured I’d canter on and look about for a likely candidate that might suffice for jump 5.

Well, lookee here, straight ahead, nice square oxer and I’ve got a nice canter going.  What a bonus.  One stride later it dawns on me that there is no ground line on this side of it, and it isn’t square, it is slightly ascending, from the other side.  At moments like this I tend to simply keep doing what I’m doing and think at light speed.  So in the next stride, the thoughts that went through my head were: 1) I should pull him off, that is obviously not the right fence; and 2) but this is a really fab canter and the distance is perfect, it will sail; and 3) he’s a relatively green horse and this is a schooling show, so I don’t want to pull him off and give him a jar; and 4) he’s a relatively green horse so I should not ask him to jump a ground line-less descending oxer; and finally came to the conclusion 5) hell with it, Lucinda Green jumps ascending oxers backwards as a matter of course in her training and Sammy’s been jumping bigger than this without a groundline at home and what does he care if it is a descending oxer, he’ll land 8 feet on the other side anyway.

Sure enough, he cantered down to it and sailed it very nicely.  And I rode the next few strides waiting for the whistle signaling my off course-ness and at the exact instant it went off, I came to the brilliant realization that I should have turned left after fence four and rolled back left to fence five.  D’oh.  I asked for and received permission to continue, and finished the course just fine.  Sammy never knew he was a victim of pilot error.  There was no hint of it in the party I threw for him when he crossed through the finish flags.

So I’m thankful that the people who educated me about riding and showing pounded into my thick head the habit of always schooling at a more difficult level than I show.  We all make mistakes or get surprised by things that happen in competition, and it is nice to have a little more horse or a little more training in my horse than I need to respond intelligently to the questions that come up in a competition.  I don’t go off course often and I don’t intend to do it again for a while, but it sure was fun cantering down to that oxer knowing it would go well, knowing I’d be eliminated for doing it and knowing I didn’t have to pull my horse abruptly off the fence and confuse him, because it was going to go fine.  His experience at home had allowed me the option of pitching the class rather than his confidence.

So, yeah, I jumped the oxer backwards.  And it was fun.

Horses Understand Apologies

horse and riding landing from a jump while the rider smiles and waves

Camie and the wonderful Carolyn Mare. Photo courtesy Derith Vogt

A friend asked me to ride her wonderful mare on a cross country school this Mother’s Day.  The weather was glorious, calm winds and sunshine, with a delightful absence of bugs.  My friend tacked the mare, handed her to me, and got in her pickup truck to meet me at the start box.

I had about a half-mile hack between me and the start box, and during the first quarter mile walk warm up, I marveled at my friend’s trust in handing me this magnificent animal.  There were no special words of direction from my friend, just an affectionate pat to the mare and handing over the reins to me in complete trust.  I was humbled at that, and the mare, and amazed at my friend’s apparent inner calm while I rode off with her fabulous partner.

Then into trot on the hack to the start box and I got to thinking about my recent struggle to Push Back the Walls and I was extremely grateful for the time I spent contemplating larger jumps, since today would definitely include them with this mare who was schooling Prelim.  Then on to canter work and the pre-flight checking of the craft:  right turn? check; left turn? check; canter to trot?  Check;  trot to canter? Check;  rebalance canter?  Check;  Gallop and come back?  Check.  Satisfied with the communication system and quite warmed up, we were ready to do some jumping.

We started out over some smaller jumps and the mare was a rock star.  She was keen, smart and in the moment.  The rider was having an acclimation period to the mare’s particular scopey jumping style, however, and found a few new definitions of “in the back seat.”  After about three jumps, we were dialed in.  Then we went on to some training and prelim level jumps that went well.  Cross the stream with a little hesitation, and on to the coffin complex, piece of cake.  The mare was starting to get self-congratulatory—a spring in her step and a cheeky arch to her neck.  Lovely to have a fine fit mare who shares her joy in the green grass of spring.

Then we went on to the steeple chase jump, pure fun.  Then the step combination.  This is a two bank combination with one stride between them.  The first time through it went quite acceptably, but not smoothly.  I gave her a rub, told her what a good girl she was, did a large circle back and re-presented.  I cleverly chose to compress her too much, ride too far into the base, miss the distance, scramble up the bank, put in two strides on the first level, and asked her to stop so we could work it out, rather than go up the second.  Brave mare on a mission that she is, she jumped the second bank from a halt, whereupon I unintentionally hit her in the mouth.  Ugh.  I felt terrible.  We had missed the first distance because I over-rode and killed the engine and buried her, and the rest fell apart through entropy.  I mourned powerfully inwardly for a few seconds.  I then told her I was sorry in words and gestures.  I let her walk on a loose rein, while I pulled up the Lucinda Greene “How to ride a bank” recipe card in my brain rolodex, picked up a canter, re-presented and had an acceptable ride up the steps.

That mare never missed a beat the rest of the day.  She accepted my apology entirely.  She never questioned, she never held a grudge.  We dropped off banks into water and left a vapor-trail of pure yee-ha over the tiger trap.  And I was reminded of two lessons from her:  Most of riding happens between your ears–pull up the brain rolodex card for each jump before you jump it; and when you mess up, fess up, own it and carry on.  The best apology is doing better next time.   Huzzah Carolyn Mare.

Push Back the Walls

It is springtime and I am in a happy mood.  We had record-setting snowfall this winter, which made lots of people pretty cranky.  For me, winter was mostly amusing, because it came in with a fury and made it known it was here to stay, so I accepted it.  I actually was thankful it didn’t give us little peeks of spring only to dash our hopes against the dreaded frozen snowbank of despair.  I didn’t try to ride horses in 4-foot snowbanks with sharp winds biting our faces.  I gave in to the howling winds and undulating expanse of white in my outdoor riding arena from January to about mid-March by feeding extra hay and giving lots of kisses and cookies to plenty-warm muzzles.  I set to humming a happy tune while cleaning the closets in my house and dusting ceiling fans.  I went into total acceptance of the reality of what this winter was, and it made it a really lovely time for me.

But we all love spring when it comes (and spring with the spring cleaning done is a knockout combination.)  The flowers and seeds are planted, the birds are back and the air smells pungent and fresh.  The horses are out at grass when not working their one hour or so per day and their coats are getting slick as the last bastion of dead winter hair releases its grip.

And now I have to learn to ride again.  This is the only part of this spring that is seriously harshing my buzz.  We’ve all had those moments where we realize that what used to be easy for us is now daunting.  Whether that is riding outside of an arena, cantering or whatever your used-to-be-comfort zone encompassed, we all have experienced the moment when we realize our world of possibility has shrunk.  At that moment we have a choice: either live in the shrinking world, or push back the walls.

Last fall I was galloping and jumping somewhere around 3’6” and flirting occasionally with 4’.  And it was easy.  It was thrilling.  It was a gift from the Universe that I thoroughly enjoyed and was grateful for.  This spring feels like starting all over again, and it doesn’t help that I have a really Fascinating Pony (FP) in for jumping training.  We are up to 2 feet which looks giant to me right now from the vantage point of 12 hands.

Each day when I feed, I walk by my jumps, which had been set at 1’-2’ for FP training.  Over time that height had started to look normal to me.  The me of last fall would not have considered them even warm up fences.  One of my horses literally shies at fences set that low.  (This I found out right after informing an international  clinician, who had asked about my and my horse’s experience, that 4’ hunters were in our past.  I trotted away at his direction and had an inglorious stop and near unplanned dismount at a 1’ vertical.  Spectacular.)  But after this winter of not riding and the early spring of cavaletti and 1’ grids, 2’ was looking big to me.  The walls of possibility had slowly pushed near enough to me that I had to keep my elbows in to turn around.  So I made a plan to push back.

I started by changing the default setting on the jumps to 3’.  This required a lot of extra work because every time before I worked FP, I had to lower the jumps and afterwards, I had to raise them.  But something about walking past those jumps set at 3’, which looked a little big to me at first, stirred a memory from last summer of walking championship level eventing courses and at first saying “Oy chee mamma, that’s big.” And then walking them again  and maybe again, and finding them acceptable on further consideration.   The easiest part comes next: simply putting those jumps between the gunsights of my wonderful horse’s ears, and thoroughly enjoying being lifted effortlessly over, flying and grinning.

After a few days the 3’ fences in my arena were not big to me anymore and I jumped the made horses over them while they yawned and my heart raced.  It occurred to me when I untacked their unimpressed selves that humans think entirely too much.

So tonight when I feed I will set the jumps to 3’6” and look at them a day or two, get my mind around the height and then canter on down to them and jump them.  It won’t be easy at first, but easy will migrate home to roost like the predictable bird it is.  I will be back and I will feel better, and who knows, maybe I will crank them up more and look at them with feed buckets in my arms, and feel future easy flight.

This process of pushing back the walls is like wading into a cool spring-fed lake.  We walk out and the water gets deeper and colder and we wonder if we should continue or just go back to the warmth of the sandy beach.  When we choose to take the plunge and glide, swimming along in the balmy top few feet of the water, we remember that the acclimation process we had to go through to get there was simply the appropriate price of admission for the ride.