Monday, December 29, 2008

Hooray and THANK YOU! to BTB!

My blog was chosen as winner of the Behind the Bit Anniversary contest! Yay! Stacey, author of BTB, provides TONS of useful informational posts, drool-worthy videos, and updates about her young Hanoverian Riley. If you have never read her blog I highly recommend it! Check it out here: Behind the Bit.

Thanks again Stacey!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Merry Christmas, now back to work!

This week has been a busy one, with several church services, lots of delicious food, and a motivating lesson on Tuesday. I was motivated by Henry's progress to look towards the future and some shows, and I was motivated to stimulate the economy thanks to a broken boot zipper!

First off, Merry Christmas to those who celebrated yesterday. My day was full of cookies, chili, and a much appreciated plane ticket so that I can go visit my grandfather in Florida. I am very lucky to have friends, family, and loved ones in my life!
I also got a gift certificate to Dover Saddlery, which I will be using for a new bright yellow bucket, some Healthy Hair Care Moisturizer, some Thrush Buster, and a new pair of bell boots. Nothing too glamorous, but there are some things I have my eye on for the future, which will be especially useful if, as my trainer mentioned, I will be going to my first recognized shows this year! She said that her boot zippers have broken TWICE at the same show on two separate occasions, and that it might have been related to the fact that her tack stall was #13. When I asked if she ever brought other horses than her own to those shows, she said that she did and that Henry would definitely be ready this year.

I am SUPER excited at that prospect and so of course have been drooling over new boots (mine are field boots since I like the ability to lace up around the ankles), a new coat (yup, been riding in the same old black HUNT COAT since I was a pre-teen), and white show gloves (although maybe we'll wait on these to make sure I have the hands to do it right!). It is also dangerous to leave me alone with a credit card and a tack catalogue (I would end up with soooo many sets of polo wraps...), so I will keep my purchases under $100 for the time being, and start a piggy bank for the spring.

I had a lesson on Tuesday that I endured with my busted boot zipper (booooooo). It broke right before I got on, unfortunately. I dropped it off at the repair shop on Wednesday, only to be asked for the other (non-broken) boot as well, which my boyfriend dropped off this morning. I guess I should appreciate the dedication of the zipper-repairwoman, who wants to match the zippers on my boots. Unfortunately she said she would probably not be able to finish the job until next week, prompting a mild how-will-I-ride shopping spree this morning. I found paddock boots and half chaps online for a whopping $45 total, and hopefully they will get to me before next Tuesday. If not, I will probably just cancel my lesson and use the extra week for some more practice time, since I did not ride Wednesday or yesterday.

During our lesson, we worked on transitions, and holding my half-halt aids until Henry was *actually* traveling at the pace I wanted. This did a lot to help our trot-halt and canter-walk transitions. We worked more on trot lengthening and he gave me an amazing result across the diagonal towards the end of the lesson. We also introduced haunches-in, asking him to swing his back end in at the walk, and reinforcing it with a couple of steps of turn on the forehand. I think he will pick it up quickly, and he is doing a lot better about listening to my half halts when previously, he would have scooted when introduced to new things.

My trainer is pleased at how easy it is to get things done with Henry. Many horses will just be settling in to work halfway through the lesson, whereas as soon as I shorten the reins, Henry is ready to work. However, this tends to make it easier for him to become mentally tired towards the end of the lesson. At first I was worried that he was really unfit, but this makes a lot of sense. He is a thinker, and after working on things that he has to think about to accomplish, he gets mentally worn out. It definitely doesn't help that the weather keeps us in the arena every time I go to the barn, but at least he has daily turnout with buddies. I can't wait until we can get out on the trails!

So, my homework for this week (and probably next week, too) is to:
  • keep working on getting the gaits I want and that I know Henry can give me
  • work on lengthening and shortening the stride in trot
  • work on shoulder-in and introducing & reinforcing haunches-in
  • keep his shoulders up at the canter, especially to the right, as he tends to tip in towards the center going that direction
  • trot-halt and canter-walk transitions, including collecting the walk, cantering 3 strides, and walking again
  • making sure Henry has mental stimulation as well as breaking up the routine to keep him happy and interested
I hope everyone is having a great holiday season, and I will be working on my New Year's resolutions this weekend. I'm pretty sure those will have something to do with the huge pile of chocolates and cookies at home...

Monday, December 22, 2008

A pretty good week, but hectic!

I am looking forward to two things:

1. When I have more time to sit down, decompress, and blog
2. When this ARCTIC weather passes (it's currently 15 degrees out)

I have been running around quite a bit this past week, hence my lack of posts since my lesson last Tuesday. However, I have been at the barn almost every day since then. On Wednesday, I decided to longe (lunge?) Henry as it had been a while since we had worked on his voice commands, ground manners, etc. He is muscling up really nicely, but he does have a LOT of energy... He was quite good in walk/trot/halt both directions, and then... sort of exploded in the canter :X He wasn't trying to be bad, I don't think; just a lot of energy and feeling fresh. He took off around the circle a couple of times and then stopped short, after which I sent him forward into a walk or trot. After each little outburst he was on his best behavior (for a few minutes), and I even got some very nice canters when I asked. Aside from his bout of spunkiness, he was a peach.

I didn't make it out to the barn on Thursday, and then Friday a BIG STORM came. Yeah, the same one that dumped snow on Las Vegas. I was let out of work early and headed straight to the barn, because I knew that I wouldn't get out there later at night. I knew the temps were supposed to be dropping well under the freezing mark, so I pulled out Henry's *clean* blanket and I'm sure he appreciates it. If the temperature ever gets back to the mid-30s I will let him go without since his coat is nice and thick, but these bitter cold days with snow and wind are a bit much.

Saturday there was a holiday party at the barn, so my boyfriend (who is on break from school) came with to eat cookies while I rode. Henry was awesome. I used a quarter sheet to warm up with and I can definitely appreciate when he is warm and loose. His trot was great right off the bat. We worked on everything from our last lesson, including turn on the haunches and trot lengthenings. He was a very good boy :)

Yesterday we worked on the same things, as well as trying to get some good canter-walk transitions, but I was sort of distracted the whole ride, so it was tough going. There were two other riders in the ring, and one of them gives running commentary on her ride. She talks to her horse, saying things like, "Come on, pick yourself up a bit! That's good, good balance, keep it together..." etc etc ETC. It gets very old, very fast. It's also tough to concentrate when you are looking over your shoulder all the time to avoid head-on collisions with other riders, who don't seem to think it's their responsibility to do the same. It's frustrating but a good learning experience, I suppose. Trying to keep your composure, turn on a dime, and really practice your transitions (i.e. WHOOPS we need to HALT NOW!) keeps you and your horse sharp!

Tonight I am working late, so Henry will get the night off. FHOTD wrote that she never rides when temps are this low, and I think that's a good standard. If I could get out to the barn I would probably give Henry a good grooming and some hand walking. Hopefully things will be warm enough tomorrow night for my lesson...

Aside from all the usual work and barn trips, I am trying to catch up on some volunteer work for my local GMO, write and send holiday cards, and I have been making chocolate covered pretzels for holiday gifts. There's not a lot of extra money this year, so a homemade delicious gift is the best I could do, and so far the reviews have been great!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Icy outside, but very cool in the ring!

What can I say? I am so lucky to have such a great horse. As I was mucking his stall post-lesson tonight, I kept hearing Martina McBride singing "Blessed" in my head (cheesy, yes, but oh well!).

When I got to the barn, there were some younger girls in the tack room (they help out with the barn chores, sometimes teach lessons, etc and board their horses there). As one exclaimed, "I love these boots, they were $75!!!" I figured it would be a frustrating night. The woman whose lesson is right before mine has a beautiful upper level horse, who gets all the fanciest gear you could imagine. I heard the two girls mocking her for using a quarter sheet - "It's just a little piece of fleece, it's not going to keep him warm!" "So and so has one too" "Yeah she has a PINK ONE! *snort*" (the last comment made right before one girl pulled a HOT PINK brush out of her tack box, which the other girl complimented...) - and then put them out of my mind as I brought out MY quarter sheet and started grooming Henry.

He was a little upset (again) that I was disturbing him right when he should be forehead deep in hay, and once again, the 4pm lesson mom put carrots in his feed bin without asking. I sighed, brushed out his mane and put his saddle on. We warmed up walking and trotting a bit before my trainer was finished with the other lesson, and when she was ready to start we picked up a trot and worked on leg yields, shoulder-in, and small circles for a few minutes. The trot he gave me, right off the bat (with the quarter sheet on) was amazing. It's like he KNOWS when we're about to have a lesson and just turns on the charm. I worked on bending his ribcage with my inside leg, fingers, and leg, and worked on something I read on some blog or forum somewhere - stepping into my inside stirrup and lengthening my body on the outside (from hip to shoulder) to help him lengthen on the outside. He was phenomenal.

After a walk break, we did some collected walk-canter-walk transitions. He is getting better every day and his canter is so uphill, floating, and light I feel like we're not even touching the ground. Down transitions still need work, but he is building his strength and stamina every ride. A few times he picked up a counter canter but hey, nobody's perfect, and his counter canter is super comfy! He's going to dominate at 2nd level... erm... someday!

After what was perhaps one or two circles too many, we took another walk break. My trainer and I agreed that we have to be careful not to work him too hard, which is difficult because he tries so hard that it's almost impossible to know when he's getting tired. He will go until he just can't hold himself together, instead of gradually trying to tell me 'Oh hey, I'll be getting tired soon... hmm, I'm sort of tired... still only kind of tired, check back later... okay I guess I'm tired now'. Plus his canter is so cool to ride (and watch, apparently - my trainer dropped the T word - THIRD level quality) that it's tempting to savor it. However, the reason it's so great is because he tries with all he's got every time I ask, and then suddenly he realizes, 'Oof, I actually need to take a break!' so I will be extra vigilant not to do too much. He's a quick learner too, so drilling is boring and counter productive. Lucky me :) Anyway she said that with this quality of canter, and striving towards 2nd/ 3rd level movements, it would get me great scores at 1st level, and would keep his mind engaged. He needs work, wants to work for me, and this type of horse would get cranky if I didn't challenge him.

After the walk we took a large circle in the trot and worked on shortening and lengthening his stride - not by much, but enough to get him started thinking about lengthenings. My trainer explained that I should treat them like transitions, not gradual changes, and expect an immediate response from him. What that got me was quite a few lovely canter transitions, and several almost-halts, but hey, I can't blame him for trying to do what he thought I wanted! So this week I will be working on this more. My trainer said to expect similar results for the next few months, but we'll see ;)

So, homework:
  • still working on my position! ("much better" this week but I'm not going to get complacent!)
  • 1st & 2nd level movements (shoulder-in, leg-yield, and new! turn on the haunches) with an emphasis on good bending through his ribcage
  • trot shortening (gathering energy) and lengthening (a few strides) and working on prompt responses - treating them like transitions
  • working a little bit on collected walk-canter-collected walk transitions, always maintaining the lovely uphill canter that we know he can do (and LOVES to do) to build strength
I think this week I will also try to do one fun/cross-train day, like grooming, ground manners, & longing, or working over ground poles and crossrails or something, just so that he knows sometimes we can loosen up and not worry about all the hard work we've been doing in the ring. The weather will probably not cooperate enough to get us outside any time soon (like, in the next 4-5 months) so I'll try to find something we can do indoors. Not even snarky teenagers or mountains of manure can change the deep-down grateful feeling I get when I'm working with Henry. I really have been blessed!

Here comes the flood!

Yesterday the weather was quite warm, into the mid 50s I believe. This meant that I wouldn't have to deal with Henry's scooty-OMG it's cold attitude. Yay! However, there was also a great deal of precipitation yesterday. Hmm...

When I got to the barn there was a jumping lesson again. I heard the trainer talking to the boarder afterward and she's a lot younger than I thought! She's looking for high schools! It's hard to tell when some young riders are so dedicated, and so quiet, but I suppose I was like that when I was her age as well (only sans horse).

Henry made some faces at me as I was tacking up, probably because it was shortly after he had been fed and he wanted to keep eating his hay. Oh well. My limited schedule becomes your inconvenience, buddy! There was another boarder there whose horse is in the stall next to Henry and she too was tacking up, but got into the ring before me (I waited until the jumping lesson was over, so as not to get in the way of the HUGE WB careening around and hurdling over things.

As I was getting ready to get on, I noticed something shiny in the ring footing - turns out it was someone's pocketknife (thankfully closed)!!! Then I started to walk around on the buckle and hmmm... what's that noise? Above the din of the rain on the metal roof, I heard an engine. I looked out the end door and there was a tractor, lights on, idling in the mud. Apparently there would have been a deluge followed by a very muddy ring if not for the impromptu ditches being dug. Henry was a little wary of all these shenanigans but after a couple of laps around the ring he settled down quite a bit. The only thing left to deal with was my neighbor-boarder, who apparently thought it was quite alright to practically run into Henry on her way around the ring. Um, what? Good thing he's not a kicker!

I warmed up with some shoulder-in at the walk, as well as some small circles and halts. His trot work was pretty great, though halfway into my ride there was another lesson starting (2 riders) so I mainly stayed on a large 20(ish) meter circle at A. Thankfully the instructor of that lesson made a point of asking neighbor-boarder not to follow too closely, saving me the trouble. I tried to work on some canter-walk transitions when I had a clear path, which was a little difficult, but towards the end we were doing quite a bit better than last week.

I hate sitting at a desk all day, and I really need to get back to the gym, because my position is one of the most important things I need to work on. How can I expect Henry to work and be his best when I'm tipping forward or being inconsistent with my aids? I'm not being fair. It's just so tempting to sleep as late as I can in the morning, hit the barn right after work, and not even think about the gym, but the consequences are *ahem* starting to show. I'm REALLY not a morning person but I might have to try to muster the motivation to get up and work out BEFORE work, because there's really no other time in the day I have free, but winter weather makes it oh-so-nice to stay under all my blankets when I wake up...

These time (and motivtion) limitations will certainly be exacerbated next month, when I will be taking a class (or two) at the community college, working full-time, trying to move my horse up to 1st level & taking lessons, and teaching a lesson at the barn... the BO asked me if I would be interested in teaching a beginner level weekly night lesson - um, YES!?! I taught a few private lessons there before I left for college, usually small kids getting acclimated before joining a group lesson. The lesson I would be teaching next month would be a beginner-level group lesson of college students (they get a PE credit - how cool is that?) and would involve teaching grooming, tack, anatomy, safety, basic riding technique, position, etc; a lot of what I've done at summer camp in years past, only with people whose attention span is longer than 15 minutes. I'm excited to hone my skills and I am finding more and more how much I love meeting new people, so hooray!

I have my own lesson tonight, and I can't wait to find out what we'll be working on. I will be using my quarter sheet to warm up with (I am keeping it in my locker, under my saddle as I read on COTH that the wooden rack could damage the flocking) because it has suddenly gone from 55 yesterday to... 30 degrees out today. Blech.

Monday, December 15, 2008

I haven't been a good blogger, but I have been riding!

It is a busy, busy time of year. I have been riding, I just haven't been good about posting afterwards. To recap my week:

Monday - rode in the cold; Henry was a little all over the place
Tuesday - amazing lesson, trying to work on position and down transitions
Thursday - Henry was a little scooty in the trot, but his canter work was awesome
Saturday - cold again! with a fleece quarter sheet though, Henry was more comfortable and warmed up quickly and easily (he is not clipped) trot work was super, canter-walk transitions are going to take a while!

So my week in riding was pretty eventful. I feel like we are progressing in leaps and bounds (mostly figurative), and I can't wait to see how the rest of the winter pans out. The last barn I was at had a couple of boarders who liked to show at the local/ schooling shows, and there were a couple of trailers on site. I'm not sure if there are many boarders at this barn who do show, and many of them ride purely for the fun of it (which is awesome). I DO like to show, so we'll see if there are any opportunities that come up in the spring. Our USDF GMO sponsors several shows, clinics, and "show and tell" events, and I have enjoyed going to shows hosted by other organizations and barns in years past. I'll start saving now for entry fees...

My week in life was somewhat eventful as well. We got a tree and my boyfriend trimmed it... well, the top half anyway. I am also planning on doing some serious soul searching to figure out what my next career steps will be. I am hoping to take one or two business classes at a local college in the spring, to see if it's something I could stomach. I've never envisioned myself going into business but... who knows?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Yeah, Monday was just too cold.

Another week, another amazing, enlightening lesson with my trainer. I am dumbfounded at her ability to turn simple exercises, periodic reminders, and visualized metaphors into amazing results in my horse. I am LOVING these lessons.

I was nervous that Henry might still be a little wild as he had been on Monday, or that worse, the weather might not have been the only reason for his acting up. What if his back was hurting? What if his mouth was hurting? Thankfully, he plodded around on the buckle to warm up for a few laps, even though we were in the trainer's ring (which he has only been in once before).

We started with some trot, asking for a bit of an over-bend, to get his body loosened up. I worked on keeping my shoulders back and sitting up, not pulling back with my hands, and keeping my legs on. Every now and then his head would pop up or he would try to pick up the pace, but my trainer said that every time he does that, I should sit up and hold my half halt until he relaxes. It works! I got him so that he was going around with his shoulders up, neck relaxed, mouth light but steady, and bending nicely, with a steady tempo. Where was this when I needed it on Monday???

We did a few shoulder-in to 10 meter circles, making sure both of my legs were on to support him when I asked his body to move around. We did a couple of leg-yields to reaffirm my half-halt (so that he would move over nicely instead of throwing his shoulder to the outside and squirting over to the wall). We gave him a walk break and then when we picked him up, did some work at the walk.

The walk is the hardest gait for me. He is so willing, so eager to please, that his walk can end up looking very tense and way too fast. We worked on "halving" his walk - reducing the speed and stride by half (two or three times!) to get him into a calm, collected walk. As my trainer said, I'm fighting against his nature, so I will have to teach him how to walk differently, and that this new, s l o w e r walk is really awesome and definitely what I want.

From the walk we did some canter transitions, and from canter back to walk, emphasizing my upper body balancing his tendency to tip on to the forehand. Then we did a figure 8 exercise where we cantered a 15 meter circle in one direction, (tried) to walk on center line, and then cantered a 15 meter circle in the other direction, and so on. After a little while his canter-walk transitions were getting a lot closer; my trainer explained that since he has such a nice big stride, it took him longer to get organized to be able to walk. After three or four of those figure 8s, his canter was amazing! It was uphill, rolling, rhythmic, and so light... I hope I can get that again this week!

My trainer complimented the canter, and then his personality in general. I love the feeling of validation that I'm getting from these lessons, since my last trainer kept telling me that if I really wanted to be serious about dressage, I would need a new (read: expensive) horse (read: warmblood). Nuts to that. Henry is AWESOME.

So, homework for this week:

  • position, position, position! (I am "sitting twice as well as last week", but I "still need to sit up more" - yup!)
  • keeping my upper body up to help balance him
  • holding my half-halts until he is willing to stay at the tempo I want
  • keeping the bend and a feel on the outside (pushing him into the outside rein)
  • keeping Henry's body "under my saddle", not strung out in front or dragging behind (not that the latter is EVER an issue - he's got too much motor, if anything)
  • keeping the walk calm, collected, and s l o w
  • canter-walk transitions to increase his confidence in my asking for down transitions, and his ability to organize himself at the canter

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Should have seen this coming!

Well, I was so busy this past week/ weekend I left Henry to his own devices for four days. There was a pretty bad snow squall/ deep freeze Sunday to Monday, so when I went out to the barn last night, I expected to spend a little longer on warming up, but boy oh boy I was surprised at him!

I had to wait about 15 minutes to actually put his tack on and get out in the ring because there were three horses already out there - and one was doing a jumping lesson. I had an interesting discussion in the tack room with two other boarders about various H/J trainers we knew and had worked with (or in my case, worked for). It is a teeny tiny small world up here. Yikes. I had better keep things like that in mind and keep working on spreading good karma!

When I got into the ring he was totally subdued; he stood like a statue while I got on, and then we walked around on the buckle and he put his head down. I did some light trot work to get him warmed up quicker, and then when I tried to put him together he got antsy. I was still trying hard to work on keeping my position, which includes keeping my leg on. We still haven't gotten to the point where my legs can stay on and he'll listen to my seat and upper body to stay slow and relaxed. He got a little upset and picked up the canter a couple of times - I swear I could have done some lovely pirouettes with that canter! He wasn't going anywhere fast, just didn't think I wanted a slow trot.

Then things got interesting. He was getting worried because of my legs. I kept trying to push my shoulders back and put my hands forward. He can go BIG when he feels like it, but when I tried to hold him back, and actually make turns, he started to pogo-trot. I worked on transitions - trot-walk, walk-halt, halt-trot, trot-halt. That was okay. We took a short break. Back into the trot and when I tried to sit and slow him down, he actually let out a few (tiny) bucks and into canter. Okay then!

Apparently I should have longed for a while before I got on, but I was already strapped for time. We worked on some more transitions and I mainly stuck to posting the trot, and he gave me some nice moments towards the end of our almost hour-long ride. Hopefully since it is about 35-40 today, instead of 15-20 like last night, this won't be the sort of ride I have for my lesson tonight.

I was also having a really hard time with my right seat bone. For the life of me, I can't seem to keep it where I want it. Maybe this has something to do with driving a lot - using my right leg more to step on the pedals? I need to get back to the gym more often and do yoga and pilates at home, as I have done in the past. The weather and shortness of days make me loathe to do much more than curl up with a good book, and I usually don't get to the barn and the gym on the same day. Given the choice, I would go out to the barn. But, it looks like I need to dedicate some more time to working on MY body, before I ask Henry to work on his. Hopefully by springtime we will both have much more toned bums!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

"Boy, Henry looks like he's got a lot of energy tonight!"

Truer words were never spoken. If I put some logo stickers on him you would've sworn you were at a NASCAR race. Jeez. Last night I tried to do all those position adjustments my trainer mandated on Tuesday. Shoulders back, butt in the saddle, hands forward, and LEGS ON. I tried, despite Henry taking that to mean "ok, let's GO!"

I worked a little bit on shoulder-in, leg-yield (one or two each way) but mostly concentrated on rhythm and tempo while maintaining a better position. It's hard to do that when I've let him get away with not dealing with a consistent leg aid for so long. It's all my fault and I stayed as calm as possible (while avoiding crashing into the two other riders in the ring) so that he would stay calm too.

We finished up with some counter canter, which was a lot easier for him going to the right. I had a hard time getting him to pick up the lead going left. We'll get there!

I have to work tonight so Henry will get the day off, lucky thing! I am starting to think about what he needs for the holidays, too(well... he doesn't really NEED anything, but all those horsey catalogues are tempting)...
  • new Himalayan salt lick (he really, REALLY loves that thing)
  • bell boots that won't fall apart
  • new water bucket (and a new scrub brush for me)
  • saddle repair (needs to be re-sewn around the pommel, and maybe replace billet straps?)
What's on your horse's wish list?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

"Take all the backward out of him, and take all the forward out of you"

The reason I was out at the barn early enough last night to catch these 4:00 lesson people feeding and petting my horse (horrors!) was that I had a lesson at 5:30. Before we even started, I asked my trainer if there was anything I could be doing with my position that was making it harder for Henry to get those darn leg-yields down. She pointed out that he's just not that great at them yet, but said she'd watch for it. We ended up working a lot on getting me to sit up and keep my hands forward, which would help him be able to come higher in his withers (he's a little "butt high") and on keeping him forward, even when I was asking for down transitions and halts.

I love that in just 3 lessons, this trainer has already got a good feel on what's going on with me and my horse. I have sometimes felt like instructors or trainers just take a shot in the dark or spout basics over and over, without getting to the heart of real training issues. She also uses Centered Riding-like phrases and images that help me a lot. I'm definitely a visual learner, so things like "try to get his hind feet up into the rings of his bit" and "you want to make him short behind you and long in front of you, so you have more horse to work with" make a lot more sense to me than it would seem they should ;)

I also love having homework, cheesy as it may be. I want to be the best I can be, and Henry to have all the right tools and information he needs to be a great mount. I hate feeling unmotivated to ride because I'm not sure what I should be working on. I don't want to work him too hard, but I do want to continually work on improving various aspects of our partnership and our ride time. I also realize and am REALLY looking forward to the fact that "improving various aspects" will include copious trail riding this spring. None of the barns I have been at in the past have had access to the awesome trails that this one does. I know them well, having ridden them quite a bit from ages 10-18, and I know there are lots of people at the barn who make it a point to ride those trails every week, if not more often. I can't wait!

Until then, though, it's homework!

  • keeping my shoulders back
  • keeping my butt in the saddle (seat bones, here I come)
  • keeping my hands forward ("it should feel like he's taking you by the hands - your hands are his, you say nothing with your hands"
  • keeping my legs on
  • keeping his forward momentum, even in down transitions and halts
  • keeping my left rein when cantering to the right
  • transitions, transitions, transitions
  • some shoulder-in, leg-yield, shoulder-fore to make sure I can put him where I want him

It sounds like a lot, but most of it is making sure I am sitting correctly. My trainer noticed that I'm scared to upset Henry in any way, so I perch on his back with my legs off, hands towards my stomach, and shoulders tipped forward. When I actually sat up last night and put my legs on and my hands forward, it was like he said "THANK you, jeez!" and gave me a real connection. So cool!

I asked her at the end of my lesson if she thought I should keep him. Not in so many words; I was trying to sound casual about it. She sort of looked at me and said that I should definitely keep him, unless I couldn't (half asking, but not being too blunt about it). I mentioned that I had put him up for sale in the summer, when the plan was to go to grad school, but that since I had a job I was making ends meet. I mentioned that I had gotten a couple of offers on him, but that those who came to try him were put off by his sensitivity.

My trainer agreed that he's "not for the average amateur" and that he's too sensitive for many riders. It would be a fight for both Henry and rider to be happy together. She also said that if it were her, she would hold on to him, because once things start to click with him (i.e. once I get my position straightened out and he realizes he can go forward in a connection and I'll only help him out) then I'll be able to get what I'm asking for with a simple shift of the hips. His sensitivity used to be a bit of a curse (and yes, I've chewed him out in my mind a few times), but more and more I know that it's a blessing and gives him the edge he needs to be a great dressage horse.

I emailed the woman from CT to let her know what my decision was, and finally felt the courage to pull his ad from the web, knowing I'll never be considered rich in the eyes of most people, but that
with hard work and some luck (and maybe a green Christmas), I'll always be able to find a way to make ends meet. More importantly, though, as long as I have this wonderful horse, I will always feel like a millionaire.

No, my horse isn't that chubby... YET!


First things first - Henry is getting spoiled. He moved from the far end of the barn to a stall that is across from the tack room door. When I got to the barn last night, there was a young girl stroking his neck through the grate while he was trying to eat dinner... obviously not very safe, so thank goodness he's a kind soul and not aggressive about eating. Then, as I was grooming him, a woman (I presume the mother of one of the students in a lesson that had just wrapped up) walked by his stall, told him he was a good boy, and dumped carrots in his feed bin.

This is a little disconcerting because I believe it is common courtesy to ASK before you pet or feed someone else's horse. Maybe I'm too uptight, but I might have to follow suit with a few of the other boarders and put up signs asking people not to feed my horse. Who knows what kind of crap people might feed him? I know people who feed treats are well-intentioned, and possibly don't know any better, but I really don't like the thought of my horse getting nippy, rude about treats, or overfed. I mentioned it to another boarder and she was shocked, pointing out that it's one thing if just one person does it, but if it's five people a day thinking "oh what a lovely horse, he deserves a treat!" there is a distinct possibility that Henry might pick up some of the aggressive habits some other horses have. I didn't say anything to the girl or to the woman, as I don't want them to think I'm just mean or that I don't want my horse to have pets and treats. He IS a good boy, after all. Maybe I'll put up a sign asking not to feed him because he's watching his figure...

However, most of the people at the barn are great! There is a holiday party coming up and always friendly faces around. It's so nice to feel like there is a barn community again, after several teeny tiny barns with hardly any people, or REALLY stuck-up people, or whatever. I realize there is never a drama-free barn, but so far, so good with this one (this time - there was TONS of drama when I rode here pre-college)... I've got my fingers crossed and I'm knocking on wood that things will stay nice here.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Reeeeeally looking forward to tomorrow...

Henry was a peach tonight. Despite the two other riders in the ring who couldn't be bothered to steer - or be polite about sharing the ring (one almost ran into me twice and then muttered something about "target practice"!!! - these are students, not boarders, but common courtesy at this barn is, as far as I know, to use the "short arena" space for lessons and leave at least a 20 meter circle at A for other riders... or at least pass left-to-left!) he really did try.

I was feeling a little sore and that wasn't helping, either; my shoulders got sloppy and I ended up not sitting as deeply as I should have...grrr. After a little trot warm-up, I went right in for some serious leg-yield practice. Inside track, quarter line, center line, you name it. There is SOMETHING I just don't get going to the right (that is, going left, but leg-yielding right). If I am too soft with the outside rein his shoulder pops out and he scoots over to the side. When I half-halt and take a stronger feel of the outside rein, he stops moving off my inside leg. Just goes straight ahead, and just scoots if I give him a nudge or a tap. He was also being a dork about bending left - especially at the spoooooky end door. It was a totally clear night, by the way. No rain, no snow, no horse-eating boogeymen waiting to jump out of the shadows (I don't think...). I must be doing something with my position that is too dramatic on that side, but I can't see or feel it. When I was younger, I know that I was always too strong in the right rein - maybe that's coming back, or maybe I'm overcompensating by being to weak? That nagging thought, coupled with the thoughtlessness of other riders, and a good helping of sore, tired muscles to boot (thanks, uterus!) made for a less happy than normal ride.

HOWEVER! The Syracuse men's basketball team is 7-0 after steamrolling Colgate (I usually end up driving around in circles to get it on the radio - no TV!), I have a lesson tomorrow night wherein hopefully my leg-yield issues will get sorted out, my horse is as cute as a button, even when he's drooling in my helmet (thinks there's cookies in there - they've got to be somewhere!), my board bill was cheaper than I thought it was going to be, and now I have a hot shower and Moby Dick to look forward to. It's things like this that make me happy to be alive :)

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sleet + Laundry Day = A Sunday Without Henry

But! I did ride Saturday afternoon. When I got to the barn there must have been 9 or 10 cars in the parking lot. By the time I was tacked up the indoor ring had miraculously cleared out :)

We warmed up with some trot circles and serpentines, as well as some trot-halt-walk transitions (trying to get him to fight his natural instincts to slide to a stop and curl up!). After a quick break, because I haven't clipped him this year, we worked on leg yields from quarter and center lines, shoulder in, and lengthening on 20 meter circles and across the diagonal. I have a tough time keeping him from overbending and throwing his shoulder at the wall when we leg-yield to the right. His shoulder in wasn't too bad, but it was better going left. Hmm...

Then we took another quick break and started up again with a couple of canter transitions, then on to counter canter. This is a BRAND new concept for him, as I have avoided it until last week. I wanted him to always nail his leads, and feel confident that he would balance himself at the canter. When I first started to train him, I don't think Henry had ever been asked to canter on a circle. I thought a few times I would bite the dust because he would get quicker and quicker to avoid having to balance himself. He would fall in to the inside, speed up, and run through down transitions. He has gotten a million times better and his canter is actually quite comfy now. Saturday, his counter canter was spot on... well, 80% of the time.

I have come to believe that the better I am as a rider the better able Henry (or whatever horse I'm on) will be able to understand what I'm asking and do it well. I know most horses have a "stiff" or "strong" side and that's surely a factor in all of the things Henry and I do but I am constantly trying to analyze my own position, my aids, and how I'm doing as a rider. I do have a tendency to lean just a little forward; this is probably left over from my hunter/jumper time in college (I never heard the end of the snarky "dressage seat" comments) as well as a bit of hesitancy to really sit on Henry lest he get quick and/or unbalanced. I have to GET OVER IT and keep my shoulders back! I'm crazy if I think he'll actually run off with me. He's never done anything like that, and will slow down willingly (sometimes even before I ask). I think he's less fit than he needs to be because after a 45 minute ride on Saturday, he was starting to get sweaty and strangely keen on interpreting half halts as "Stop, we're done!" Part of this is probably also that I'm asking for new and different muscles to work and for him to let me do new and different things.

I am going to head out to the barn tonight and try to fine-tune those leg-yields before my lesson tomorrow. Hopefully he's not covered in mud...

Friday, November 28, 2008


Well, I didn't make it out to the barn today. Between family, food, and errands I ended up whittling away the day until there wasn't a good chunk of time to spend at the barn (I usually need about three hours with getting to and from the barn, grooming, tacking up, etc).

I did, however, get a call AND an email from a woman who saw the ad for Henry online and is interested in buying him for her 13 year old daughter. Hmmm. This is tough for me because I have never been comfortable with the idea of "getting rid of" Henry. I posted the ad at the end of the summer because I was anticipating grad school in the fall, and could not reason my way out of the fact that I would be borrowing money for tuition, living expenses, AND horse stuff. Then, I was offered a full time job and decided to postpone grad school (possibly forever, if I decide that my path is in another direction) thus somewhat alleviating the money situation. Now, don't get me wrong, I am on a pretty tight budget, as many horse owners are. But it would take a very special situation for me to be comfortable selling my horse. I left the ad up just in case there was just such a person who ended up contacting me.

The first call I got, not even a full 24 hours after I posted the ad, was from a woman in Maine who was very aggressive. She asked a million questions, which was great, but there were a few that were a bit off. Then she asked what my address was. I wasn't quite sure how to respond, so I replied, "If you don't mind me asking, why do you need my address?" She wanted to know what address to give her shipper. To come pick up my horse. That she had decided to purchase without vet exam, without meeting or trying out. I refused the sale even though she was willing to pay the asking price.

I got several more calls and a couple of people in state who came to ride him. Nothing really panned out. I got a couple of emails over the fall, asking "Does ur horse jump??!?!?!?!! I m reeeeeeeeely interested!!! Call me!!!!!" Yeesh. I even tried him out on some cross-rails in the field at the barn, to see what he would do. He's not a jumper. And now, out of the blue, two people this week are interested. Well, it IS Black Friday, and I don't doubt he'd be adorable with a big red bow on him, but...

I'm not sure what I'm going to do. I mean, I could definitely benefit from having all that extra money lying around (no farrier, SmartPak, board, or vet bills? Hmm...), but then again, Henry is going really well. When would I get the chance to buy another horse?
What could I ride in the meantime to keep up my riding skills? Would I ever get the same honesty, the same amount of heart, and that cute face at a bargain like what I got EVER again? I doubt it. I really don't want to end up like so many of the girls I grew up riding with, who slowly find new hobbies and "get rid of" their horses. I have spent four years and countless hours of frustration getting this horse to trust me, and he is giving me a lot in return. I will probably never be able to import a warmblood or feel okay taking out a $75,000 loan for a horse.

My sensible, practical boyfriend pointed out that if I'm going to sell my horse I can't be too picky and I can't be too attached to him. But my boyfriend rides mountain bikes, not horses. He can sell a car without feeling attached. He won't care if the person who buys one of his bike forks online wrecks it. I could never forgive myself if I let Henry fall into a situation where he got skinny, neglected, or recklessly injured. I know I could maintain a buyback clause or whatever, but there is a point that many folks make on some of the other blogs I read: The only way to make sure that your horse is taken care of the way you want is to keep him, and do it yourself.

I had a great show season with Henry this year, and when I bought him I was sure he would never make it past Training Level. Well, with scores in the high 60s and even two 70s this year at Training Level, and with a remarkable trainer leading the pair of us through shoulder-in, lengthenings, and counter canter, I can almost feel the heat of a black jacket and the tension of a warmup ring as we get ready for First Level this summer. The thought of someone buying this horse and getting tired of him or "growing out" of him or "moving up" to their next horse and leaving him in the dust makes me feel so empty. I may eat these words in a few years, when I
win the New York State Lotto (Hey, you never know) and send Henry to a retirement farm in Florida, and buy a golden saddle and a diamond encrusted bridle for each of my new Grand Prix warmbloods... but for now I might have to be a Grinch and keep Henry under my own tree this year...

Thursday, November 27, 2008

I'm (obviously) thankful for...

My Pumpkinhead!
He's getting the day off while I bake 4 dozen cranberry pumpkin muffins to distribute to the 30+ family and friends making the trip for Thanksgiving. Tomorrow I will head up to the barn to work on my homework from Tuesday night's lesson:
  • leg-yield to shoulder-in both ways
  • loosening up his middle (more on this in a minute)
  • working on lengthening in the trot
  • trot-halt-walk transitions
  • and introducing counter canter.

Henry is great front-to-back. He's got go and whoa, and a lot in between, and his neck is easy to move around, but my trainer's analogy was that from the withers back, "he's like a tube" - we have a hard time getting him to swing side to side, and put his haunches and shoulders where I want them. So, to loosen him up I'm going to have to do a lot of bending, spiraling in and out on circles (I usually start at 20 meters, circle down to about 8 meters, and back out to 20 - he's a small horse, so 8 meters isn't too hard for him), transitions, and lateral movements. I am also constantly working on getting him more uphill, so that he is sitting down on his back end and raising his tummy and withers up. Lots of engaging his hind legs to come up under him, and half-halts up front to keep him from curling his nose in and falling on the forehand. This is a lot to try to remember when I'm actually on, but somehow it works out. Even when there are big snow piles sliding off the roof, or other riders in the ring who forget to pass left to left, or REALLY interesting tractors outside, or friends coming in from turnout.

I went to college in Virginia, deciding to forgo my mom's alma mater, Mount Holyoke. Looking back I really do wish I had pursued something in the equine industry, but I'm very thankful for my college experience. I got to learn a lot about who I am, and what I love, and that there really are places where the coldest it gets is 30 degrees. I am also thankful for my boyfriend, who, when I mentioned that the articles like "Careers With Horses" in the December issue of Dressage Today make me wish I had chosen a different path, reminded me that I still could, if I really wanted to. Something to keep in mind before I go $100K into debt for grad school...

I am also thankful for my family and friends, who know that this is one of my lifelong passions, for having a job that allows me to pursue this dream, and for the barns and people that I've met during my horsey life that are encouraging, kind, funny, smart, responsible, dependable, and fun. For the teachers I've had - good ones and not so good ones - thank you. I always try to learn something (even if I'm learning how NOT to do something) from every lesson, every show, every clinic, and every day. I'm thankful for the horses that have taught me as well, from my first ever pony ride at 4 years old (not that I can actually remember it, but there's photographic evidence!), to my first lesson on the stubborn Appy Fancy Pants, to the first horses I showed (Ritchie, thanks for letting me cry in your mane), to the first horse I got to train for dressage (Hershey - still giving lessons to everyone and going well from the glowing reports I get from students and teachers at the barn), to every horse I had to get on at an IHSA show, to the skinny camp horses, to all the ones I can only see on TV.

Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

We got a 65.7% on this one :)

Here is a video taken by my saint of a boyfriend (he's allergic to horses... literally). This was from July of this year. We are riding Training Level Test 2 at a schooling show.

A little background...

I decided to create this blog as a way to keep track of my training goals and notes with my 12 year old QH gelding, Henry. He's a great guy, and I'm doing my best to make him the best darn dressage horse I can - on a limited budget, with limited time, and with the best combination of patience and dedication that I can muster.

Most posts will be short and (hopefully sweet) as I ride and train through the bitter New York winter. This one is long because I love my horse, and I think his story is amazing (I can hear all the eyerolls already). My profile picture is... you guessed it! Me and Henry at a show this past summer, doing a Training Level test (3 maybe?).

I was working at a summer camp in 2004 when I met Henry. I was the "Horse Director" in charge of maintaining a lesson program of sorts for 400 campers, ages 4-12. Over the four summers I worked there (thank goodness it was only a DAY camp!) we had between 8-10 horses each summer, borrowed from a local trail horse operation at a nearby state park.

Every summer, before the campers arrived, the horses came on a huge trailer - some were muddy, some had saddle-shaped sweat marks still on them, most needed their feet done. I usually spent that day cleaning out the tack room, giving baths, and fitting saddles. Then I tried to get on any horse I didn't already know to see what their personalities were like and what age group they would work best for. The youngest group got grooming & lead line lessons, next oldest got "fake reins" (a lead line clipped to each side of a halter) to learn stop & go, steering, balance, etc, and the oldest actually got to use the bridle, learn to trot, and go on trail rides. I hated those bridles, with their big rusty curb bits and ill-fitting headstalls. Not my place to nitpick - there was nowhere else we could get horses for the summer - but give me a nice fat snaffle bit any day.

There was also the joy of working with teenagers. I was in college for the majority of the years I worked at camp, and I was shocked at some of the DRAMA and shenanigans these teens could produce in 8 short weeks. Crazy. Then there was the joy of coming in every Saturday and Sunday to feed, water, make sure everyone was happy and uninjured, and walk the fenceline to make sure it was still hot and effective. We were set up next to a rural-type highway, so runaway horses were not an option.

Anywho, Henry was a dirty, skinny ball of nerves from the minute I met him. He also had a much less dignified-sounding name. But I definitely saw something in him. It was a little annoying at first, as he was too squirrely to put most kids on him. We used him some for the lead-line kids, and did grooming, learning the parts of the horse, etc with him. I rode him on our group trail rides because I wasn't afraid of a little scooting (okay, a lot of scooting).

Years and years on every lesson horse I could find at a dressage barn (since I was 10) and hunter-jumper barns (in college - I was on our IHSA team) had given me the ability to discern when I needed to get after a horse and when I needed to sit and be QUIET. He needed someone to leave his sides and mouth ALONE, and pat him if there was something weird looking in the woods or if he got left behind (there were lots of horses in that group that could be very stubborn with a timid kid on their back, and we had to stay with them while they kick-kick-giddyaped at their grass-eating mounts).

Riding Henry during our lunch hour, I discovered a horse that was unsure of himself, way off balance, totally unwilling to take contact with the bit, but totally honest. If you asked the right way he would immediately respond with all he had (usually way too much). One of my teenaged co-workers brought in her snaffle bridle to try him in, to see if he would accept some contact with his mouth. He did better. I tried bending him. It loosened him up a little. One day I even got a decent trot with some circles and serpentines.

Every so often, when he came by to drop off hay, I prodded the owner of the group of horses about him - what was his breeding, how old was he, where did he come from? A registered Quarter horse, eh? You say he's only 8 or 9? Hmm... I was a little skeptical.At the end of the summer, I asked the owner if he might consider selling Henry and was surprised when he said yes. Of course I probably paid too much for him, but it was worth it to me. I had to go back to college in August, so my mom helped arrange for him to be trucked to a new home in November. He was still skinny, and looked even scragglier with a full winter coat, but he was mine.

I had always dreamed about a tall, dark and handsome warmblood (yeah, hooked on dressage) as my first horse. Had to be at least 16.2, and preferably dark bay or black. Chestnut was out of the question. And what did I end up with but a scooty, head in the air, 15 hand (on tiptoes) red dun honest to goodness 1996 AQHA Registered Quarter Horse. Everybody thought I was nuts (I'll admit, he probably would have been a better barrel racer or something at that point). I didn't have any tack. I bought him a blanket and gave him the winter and spring off (I was in school 600 miles away anyway). He deserved a break. Of course when I came home for winter break his blanket was ripped up. Not too bad. It lasted another few weeks and then we had to trash it. Oh well.

The next year Henry was fat and happy. Shiny coat, brand new tack, and me trying to figure out how to get him to slow down, stop looking out the end door, and get his head out of the stratosphere. It wasn't very pretty. Don't even ask about his canter work. We've progressed a lot since then, been at 5 different barns, and taken home lots of ribbons.

In 2006 I think we did two local shows at Intro Level, scoring mid-high 50s. I was okay with that, but I kew we could do better.

In 2007 we showed a bit more and ended up as Year End Schooling Show (yeah, I definitely can't afford recognized shows. I was an art major) Champions for our local dressage and combined training club.

This past summer we showed at Training Level (did 4 or 5 local shows) with scores usually in the upper 60s. Our last time out was a Halloween fun show, where we took home two 70% blue ribbons and a high point championship. I'm looking forward to finding out how we did in the running for our Year End Awards in January.

Right now I'm back at the barn where I started almost 15 years ago, training with one of the best teachers I've ever met and had the pleasure of working with and working for. Henry is doing amazingly well. I never thought he would come this far, and from what people tell me he's still got potential to move up. I'm crazy about him and I feel lucky every time I go out to ride (when I can find the time and it's not blizzarding). I think about all the people who pay tens of thousands of dollars for crabby, neurotic horses, who import their warmbloods from Belgium, and who buy a new horse every season to show on. I could never do that. I tried (and failed) to sell Henry this summer/ fall. I still have an ad up online but haven't gotten any inquiries in a long time (and NO, he doesn't know how to jump!). I know part of it is the economy, part of it is him (he's not a babysitter, he's got an engine), and part of it is me. I spend pretty much half of my income on this guy. My boyfriend thinks I'm nuts. My parents think I'm nuts. My friends don't really... get it. I don't care. Riding is something I've never been able to stay away from. It keeps me sane. I wish someone had told me that I could actually go to college for equine studies. I mean, an art major isn't really that much more practical...