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...