Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Oh dammit...

I got a call on my last day in Florida from my BO. Guinness was 3-legged lame, and not weight-bearing on his left hind.

Uh, crap.

I have to say. I get the "hey your horse is hurt" call a whole lot of times. However, getting that call when I'm out of town? That's probably the most stomach-dropping version of the call.

Luckily, this was a Saturday and I was able to call on my husband (who was actually home for the weekend) to go up and do a preliminary exam. Thank god he's almost-a-doctor and feels confident doing physical exams, even when the "patient" has four legs and hooves!

I talked him through the main points, and we decided the issue was 99% likely to be an abscess in the heel, and .05% likely to be a broken bone.

I have to say. The photos and video (video!) of my horse being examined were really soothing for me to get. Even though the video is tough to watch, it's obvious that the issue isn't really serious. How thoughtful was it to send me those?!
After seeing everything and giving care instructions, I was able to get back to work in Florida and put my mind at rest for my time there and my travels back home. Thank goodness!

As a follow up: Pig has been on a low level of bute for the last few days, and I haven't felt too guilty about not being able to make it out to the barn to see him. According to the trainer at the farm, Pig was walking almost normally last night. Fingers crossed the abscess is on its way out! I'm finally going to be able to check on him myself, as soon as I finish this monster proposal for grad school...

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Things I Learned: The Florida Chronicles, Part 1

The Seat
(This is part of new series to the blog chronicling the things I learned from my time taking lessons in Florida. This isn't a wide overview series. Instead I'm going to break down some tips and specific problem spots and for me, but I figure a lot of you probably have similar positional issues and might pick up some tips from my learning process. Let me know!)

Last week, I talked about techniques to help convince a heavy horse to carry his own head. I wrote that post on my way down to Florida to spend a week on the farm with my trainer and her trainer. During the week, I was generously leased an older mare trained through most of Grand Prix and given lessons nearly every day. In exchange for the lease, I body clipped the mare, cleaned all of her owner's tack, and rode the mare every day to help get her back in shape for a winter of giving lessons. It was an amazing opportunity.
Glory (TB/Dutch?), pre-clip
Glory, the mare, is the perfect upper level school horse. She knows her job and her cues 100%, but doesn't give anything away. Her rider has to be exactly on, or Glory will find a way to get out of work. She's completely honest, but not easy. Her favorite things to do under saddle include attempting to rip the reins out of your hands when you first pick them up, and take advantage of any pulling on the reins or weakness in the core or seat of her rider. 
Glory, mid-clip
Guys. It turns out I pull, have a weak core, and my seat doesn't sit. It also turns out that Glory can be heavier than Darius when I let her…

The week was an intense immersion in seat/torso position and a crash course in recognizing the moment I start to pull. When I got everything right, Glory was amazing to ride. She could be just as light as Guinness in the mouth, and very responsive in the seat. By the last day, I could finally pilot her around, keeping her light in the hand. The techniques I used were the same as I described last week, with even more tweaking of my seat and leg aids to form a more effective half halt. Today I'm going to focus on the seat position and cues.
How I take lesson notes.
To begin, my seat isn't nearly deep enough and that is where the majority of my lessons focused. My trainer had me start by feeling both seatbones equally. She emphasized that both seatbones need to be in contact with the saddle at all times (when sitting, and during the down beat of posting). At times one seatbone my have more weight than the other, (More below on when/how to weight seatbones!) but both always need to be in contact.

I struggle to leave both seatbones on the saddle. I tend to focus on the one I think needs to be weighted at a particular moment and end up sliding off that side of the saddle, leaving the other seatbone up in the air. Without both seatbones in contact, it's easy for the horse I'm riding to blow through a half halt, run out from under me, or throw me off balance.

So how do we put both seatbones in contact with the saddle? First sit up straight and in alignment with your legs/feet. Think about "sitting over" your balance point. Let both legs hang down (more on this later), pulling your seat further into the saddle with your relaxed and lengthened thighs. Feel each seatbone beneath you make contact with the saddle. This isn't the secure feeling you get sitting in a chair, but more of a balancing position when you make contact with the points of you seatbones.

If you're unfamiliar with feeling your seatbones in contact, take your time to familiarize yourself with the feeling. Wiggle back and forth on them. Practice coming off of them, and finding them again at the walk. Then the trot. And the canter. Don’t worry about working on anything else, just focus on your seatbones. Does it get harder to find them as you move to a faster gait? Is one gait easier for you? (For me the walk and the canter are easiest. The trot is harder to maintain contact in both seatbones. You may find the trot easier than the canter. It depends!)

Now, experiment with weighting one seatbone or the other. Do this without involving your torso. The goal of all of this positional work is to help you separate your hand/arm, torso, seat/weight, and leg aids so they can all act independently of each other as you ride. Once you can truly separate your aids, you can be clearer to your horse and start using more subtle and advanced cues (which you need for upper level things!).

How do you weight one seatbone without involving the rest of your body? First make sure your torso is balanced and sitting over your seat (another post coming detailing this). You're going to have a problem separating your seat from your torso if you are leaning back or sideways. Now make sure to feel both seatbones touching the saddle and tilt/drop your pelvis to one side or the other. As you do this, you'll feel more weight in one seatbone. You'll need to keep the front of your torso strong as you do this, to avoid moving your upper body. You should feel like your pelvis is on hinge below your ribcage.

Practice weighting one side, then coming back to neutral with both seatbones sitting evenly. Then try weighting the other side. Try the same process with one hip pointing forward, then the other hip forward. Do this until you feel comfortable and used to how this feels. You want to create a little muscle memory so you can access this feeling later. I feel a slight stretch behind the point of my hip when I have it right. You might feel a different stretch, or none at all.

If you find yourself coming off one seatbone while you do these exercises, make sure to lengthen your thigh on the side with the missing seatbone, and think about drawing that seatbone back down to the saddle with a heavy thigh pulling it down. Make sure your legs are underneath you, and you aren’t bracing on your stirrups. If you are pressing against your stirrups, you won’t be able to sink your weight in your seat. Related, if your knees come up in front of you, it will be impossible to keep the seatbone on that side down. Instead you'll push yourself off the other side. (Huge issue of mine!)

How do we use this weight of our seat? A couple of ways…

First we use our seatbones to anchor ourselves in the saddle for effective half halts. With both seatbones on the saddle, the horse feels our active weight asking them to step under and carry. When put together with other aids, our half halts actually ask the horse to step up.

The biggest way you're going to feel this is during a downward transition. You are going to want to sink into your seat during a downward, and will need to stretch both thighs down heavy to pull your seat into the saddle. At the same time your lower leg will close against the horse. The hard part here is going to be keeping your thighs long with your legs on (more on this in a later post). If your horse goes to pull you out of the saddle by getting heavy or rooting, you'll have this solid seat base weighing you down in the saddle. Your seatbones shouldn't leave the saddle, but instead get pulled further in. Practice in a few downwards. Walk/Halt & Trot/Walk first. My downward transitions out of canter take a lot more work on my torso than my seat, so we'll tackle those in a later post.

Second, we use our weight in one seatbone or the other to block the horse from running through its shoulder or moving off balance in bend. The extra weight on one seatbone will encourage your horse to step under your weight and pick that side up.

Most of the time you'll feel this to the outside. The horse will bulge its outside shoulder, despite your outside rein being against its neck. Perhaps you even lose the feel in the outside rein. In this situation, you'll want to weight the outside seatbone more (don't lose the contact with the inside!!) and keep your inside leg on. The outside hip will need to be slightly forward, to encourage your horse to take a bigger step with the outside hind. You might need to put your inside leg on stronger to get the horse to yield its ribcage, step under, and come into your outside rein. The inside seatbone will need to stay light during this. You'll want it to lightly bounce along, encouraging the inside leg to stay active. If it leaves the saddle, though, you're giving the horse an escape route and might find yourself zigging and zagging around the ring.
Ears photo to break up text.
 My common issues:
  • Tilting my torso in an attempt to weight/lighten my seatbones. Remember! You weight your seatbones from your pelvis only, your torso should stay separate. This takes special attention for me, because my torso tends to lean without me realizing it. It takes special attention to my body awareness to make sure I'm keeping my torso between my elbows and over my hips. Leaning has its place, but The Lean is a moment in time to insist the horse listen to your seat aid and move into your outside hand. It is not a sustained action. If you have to lean, do it, accomplish your goal, and move out of it and back to neutral.
  • Allowing the knee on my inside leg to creep up and out in front of me/losing connection with one of my seatbones. Usually this happens when I'm using my inside leg hard to try to get more bend. Using my leg tends to lead to me tightening/shortening my thighs. This lifting of my leg tends to push the corresponding seatbone off the saddle, and can even push me over to one side in the saddle. All bad. When the leg starts creeping up, take a breath, and think about pointing the kneecap at the ground, lengthening the thigh. Remember, a long and loose thigh is going to keep your seatbone secured to the saddle.
  • Pointing the wrong hip forward. Remember a forward hip encourages the horse to step up further with the corresponding hind leg. Try to feel which hind leg needs to move further and encourage that by putting the corresponding hip forward. Exaggerate this. Take the opposite shoulder and twist it way back, which should shoot your hip forward. Try to keep your seat connected to the saddle while you move your hips around.
  • Forgetting to turn my horse off my seat. Glory and Guinness both are good reminders that a horse can and should take directional cues from your seat instead of your legs. When your seatbones are connected to the  saddle, you can easily steer your horse with your seat. Simply point your outside hip where you want to go and think about "guiding" the outside of your horse around with your seat. You might find that you need to weight your outside hip more and keep your inside hip bouncing when first starting this with a horse, to keep them stepping up. Other turning aids (like keeping your inside leg on to keep the bend, and putting your outside rein against the neck to contain the shoulders) will still be in play, but using the seat is going to refine your turning aid and encourage the horse to use its whole body to turn.
    • Note: It helps me to think about turning my hip/seat within the confines of my rein space. This keeps me from leaning, and encourages the horse to be more through and work over its back and into your rein.
What do you guys think? How do you use your seat? Have you ever thought about exactly how your seatbones sit in the saddle and influence your horse?
(My goal is to eventually link all these posts together, so you can jump from each one to a related post on a different body part. Stay tuned for more!) 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Making the Heavy Horse Lighter

Working with the Heavy Horse

I’ve been working with a new horse since December. I picked up the ride on him after a friend of mine went out of town. She had Darius in full training, and asked if I would ride him for her while she spent the winter working for a trainer in California.  
He's got a cute face ...
You know me, I always leap at the chance to ride. Usually the horses I pick up for regular riding are true green beans. Of the recent few, one mare is an off the track thoroughbred who has spent the last three years chilling out in a field. Another is a young Shagya broodmare, complete with a few months of training undersaddle and an incredible suborn streak. Neither one really works on the “subtlety” and “timing” of my aids. They are fun, though, and have led to me again feeling comfortable on the backs of all different kinds of horses.

This new guy actually has some training, though. He competed some at Training and 1st with his adult amateur owner, and has shown 2nd with my friend. He’s attempted 3rd, but isn’t there yet (more on that to follow). He knows all of his lateral work, has changes installed, and is overall a solid citizen.

Sounds perfect, right?

One catch. Darius is ridiculously heavy. I mean … like, never actually executed a proper half halt kind of heavy. Like, makes your arms hurt kind of heavy. Like, pulls you out of the saddle kind of heavy. Like, how is his mouth not bleeding kind of heavy.

My friend and I have discussed how this horse is so heavy that he’ll go around the ring impersonating a wheelbarrow if you let him. His forehand will pound heavily into the ground, and his hind end will lighten up and trail around somewhere a mile behind him. He’ll try to convince you to hold him, and then slowly put more weight on your arms until you find yourself halfway out of the saddle and he’s managed to scoot out behind your seat aids.
Photographic evidence that a horse can canter with its hind legs somewhere in a different county.
He’s a sneaky. And conniving. And he hates working. (This is why 3rd level is a stretch for him. He is very good at avoiding engagement.)

He does love mud, though. Like really loves it.
So then you have me. A rider who’s dealt with a heavy horse exactly 3 other times in her life. I’m used to a horse so sensitive that if you pick up the reins too abruptly you’ll never touch their face for the rest of the ride. My own horse is so light that the rein lightly brushing the side of his neck is really all it takes to get him to move his shoulder over. Anything more is “shouting” at him, and he will take extreme offense. I’m used to a horse that half halts off the seat so easily, you can be left behind in the transition. He’s a horse for whom engagement is more about getting him to take the bit than getting him off of it.

Heavy horses. Not my forte.

So, I asked my trainer for a little advice before I started in with Darius. She’s seen him on many occasions, both with his owner’s trainer and a lot with my friend. She has some opinions on him (None of them great. I think I can say with certainty that she doesn’t like a horse who isn’t honest about work.), and some ideas to help me out. What she showed me is basically a half halt, with a rein release. It’s pretty cool, and we’ll get to it in a second…

First let’s talk about why horses can get so heavy. You would think leaning all that pressure on the bit would be uncomfortable, right? Well, a horse (or dog, or person even) easily becomes accustomed to regular pressure, and will lean into it. This means contact has stopped becoming the lively communication link between you and your horse, and has instead become a leaden weight to lean against. Somewhere the pressure stopped being lively and started being dead.

I like to compare this phenomenon to sitting next to someone on a crowded bus or plane. Next to you is a stranger, and you don’t want to touch them, but space is limited and it’s impossible to avoid them. Let’s say the person next to you is a little old lady (probably with fluffy blue hair, and pictures of adorable grandchildren). She gets tired about halfway through the journey and starts falling asleep. Of course, in close quarters, that means she falls asleep on you. This process happens slowly. First she starts slumping her weight onto your shoulder. At first you’re aware of it, but after a few minutes she is totally zonked out and you don’t even really notice. In fact, you find yourself leaning into her weight to keep yourself upright and balanced in your seat.

This is sort of what happens with a heavy horse. When they get heavy you are both leaning against each other, propping each other up. Now, think back to that sleeping old lady. What if she started twitching in her sleep? I’m not talking seizure level, but just your run of the mill sleep-twitches. As she started taking her weight off you in little twitches, I bet you would stop leaning into her. You would probably sit up straighter under your own power, and smile back at the understanding lady sitting across the aisle.

Same thing with a heavy horse. Without the weight to lean against, the horse can’t be heavy. There’s nothing to lean on.

So, how do we reproduce this reaction? First, we need to solidify our seat. Lightening up a heavy horse is 99% going to be about solidifying your position and not ever giving it up. A horse might be heavy for a lot of reasons, but by being heavy he is lightening your seat and escaping your aids for sitting and engaging. That’s a big evasion and it can’t happen. A disengaged horse is going to have a very hard time getting off your hands.

Solidify your position:

1.       Now that you’re thinking about your seat, focus on getting it deeper. Open up the front of your hip and lengthen your hip flexors and your legs. Drape your legs on your horse, with the calves on. Keep the front of your hips as open as possible to allow the horse to move forward. At the same time, find both seat bones and feel how they are following the horse’s movement. Is one weighted more than the other? Fix it. Get both evenly in contact with the saddle.

2.       Stretch up with your upper body. We all have our individual faults here. Mine is slumping my back just under my shoulder blades. I think about being pulled up by the strap of my sports bra, and that helps me lift up without bracing my back. Bracing is going to be counterproductive here, so learn to stretch up without tightening everything to hold you there. (Think mountain pose in yoga.)

3.       Slide your shoulder blades down your back. This is going to stabilize your back, arms, and contact, plus it will keep your upper body more open. Keeping your shoulder blades down will also put your shoulders back, without forcing them there. Again, you don’t want to be tight and bracing. That’s going to effect your balance and your contact. If you have a problem getting yourself into this position without bracing, practice until you can manage it in a relaxed way. A heavy horse is going to constantly challenge your seat and upper body position. You’re going to want to make this position second nature.

4.       Arms and hands should be held just the way you normally would: Elbows bent and back, hands carried so that the bit is lifted and lively in the mouth, not lowered and acting on the bars, or fixed and tense. (No hands down, guys!)

Take away the pressure:

1.       Without losing your position, gently break your horse’s hold by giving him nothing to hold on to momentarily. You’re going to do this by quickly shooting your hands out and “dropping” the contact for a quick moment. I usually slide my elbows forward to gap the reins for a half second, then bring my elbows right back to where they were.

2.       Put your leg on when you “drop” the contact, to encourage the horse to step under himself and into self-carriage. Otherwise, he might just flop onto his forehand and become even heavier. Your goal is to keep him moving in balance.

3.       Keep your seat deep during the whole thing, and do not round your shoulders or lean forward. Remember how we found those seatbones earlier? Make sure you feel them through this whole movement. If you lighten your seat, you’re going to give your horse an escape route and he won’t have to sit and lift himself up.

4.       When your hands come back, continue along as normal. If your horse isn’t improved, try again in a few strides. If your horse lightens up immediately, awesome! Stay vigilant, because he will probably slowly get heavy again, and you’re most likely going to have to repeat this process a few times.

5.       You’ll know you’re on the right track when you notice your horse lifting up his withers (you can both see and feel this), and getting more powerful without getting faster. The pressure on your hands will also get lighter. Try to keep your seat powerful when you feel this (that might be hard the first few times!).
Cute face to break up this wall of text....

·       Your horse’s initial reaction to this might be to rush. Keep your seat down, and half halt with it. Don’t be afraid to rate him back to an acceptable speed and try the whole thing over again. Your eventual goal is to get your horse to come up not rush forward.

·       Don’t exaggerate your hand movement. You don’t want to scare your horse off of contact, or make him unstable. The action is quick, but subtle. You just want to liven up the contact enough that it breaks your horse’s hold on it. Your legs will do the rest of the work.

·       If you feel like you’re getting frustrated or nothing is happening, take a break. Make sure you don’t take that frustration out on your horse’s mouth.

·       You won’t get a horse off the forehand with your hands. You have to use your legs and seat to encourage your horse to step further under himself and engage his back and abs to lift himself up. This is why I emphasized solidifying your seat.

·       All you are doing with your hands is taking away the stable pressure your horse is leaning on. Remember, he can’t lean if there is nothing there to lean against. Don’t be a passive partner in your horse’s heavy contact!

This method has gone a long way into helping Mr. Darius be much lighter in my hand. My back, abs, and arms much appreciate. Honestly, he wasn’t happy about the whole process. Having to step up and use his back is way harder for him than plowing around like a wheelbarrow. Poor guy. I have zero sympathy…

Do any of you struggle with horse’s heavy in the contact and heavy on the forehand? Ever tried anything similar to this?

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Opinion Post: Chinese Herbs and Homeopathic Crap

Tell me the truth, have any of you ever used Chinese herbs on your horse?

At Guinness' vet check up two weeks ago, I came face to face with something I really hate... a homeopathic vet. Don't get me wrong! I love massage therapy for both humans and horse athletes. I think rolling out muscles is inherently helpful. But, when it comes to vet care (especially vet care relating to my horse's bones and tendons!), I like a vet that plays it straight and medical.

Full disclosure. This vet visit took me awhile to talk about because I feel that I was both taken advantage of a little, and really angry over the incompetence of the vet.

The vet at Guinness' check up immediately jumped in and started doing a chiro adjustment on him, without asking me first if I wanted her to. She suggested he was tight in his hips and over his back.

Well, yeah. The ground was frozen solid and extremely difficult to walk on. He wasn't moving around much. Hell, I was tight from walking around out there.

She told me he would feel much better undersaddle after his adjustment.

He did not. He felt good, don't get me wrong, but not "better". In fact, he felt just a great as he did the ride the day before. He's been loose and swinging and happy in contact ever since the accident. It's almost been suspicious.

So, the chiro work didn't help. It didn't hurt either. I was just affronted that I hadn't asked for it, and here the vet was doing "adjustments" to him. You guys know I am not one to spend money on frivolous things. This felt frivolous. Very much "owner soothing." I did not need soothed; I do not appreciate being pandered too. My emotions don't make healthcare decisions. All I needed was for a vet to tell me if it was worth spending extra money to have a few lingering swellings in Pig's legs examined via ultrasound.

The vet refused to say. She told me the hard fill around Pig's tendon sheaths in his back legs would probably just go down on its own with movement and time. Well, okay... Then she picked up his front right and flexed his leg at the knee.

"There's a slight bit of loss of range of motion in that knee. It might be permanent, it might not. No way to tell. Here, try this..."

Yeah. You heard that right. Instead of telling me that I might want to spend the extra money to check out the slight heat and fill in Pig's front right knee, the vet handed me a box of "Chinese herbs" and told me those would probably take care of the issue.

What the hell?
Someone tell me why this is better than bute? Or Surpass? Or an ultrasound?!
At that moment, I pretty much wrote her off completely. What kind of vet notices a loss of range of motion in a joint with a warm swelling and says "probably permanent?" What kind of vet doesn't recommend further diagnostic testing to make sure it's nothing damaging?

Oh as a closing remark, the vet told me to "lop the toes off his feet and he'll be much more comfortable. Those heels are very underrun. You might want to put shoes on him." Uh. No. I told her what my highly qualified and well-recommended lameness vet told me about keeping Guinness out of shoes. I then told her that he is sound with longer toes, probably related to the reduced range of motion in his fetlocks. "Oh no. Lop the toes off. I think you'll find he'll be much more comfortable." Lady, screw you. I held my tongue and just said, "It's something to think about" so she would leave. She obviously knows nothing about equine movement and I'm not about to take her advice. My trim work has kept Guinness sound and happy for almost three years now. I think those slightly long toes suit him just fine.

What the ...?
I threw the Chinese herbs into Pig's supplement box, and told the BO to go ahead and give him the packets with his grain. Again, it won't hurt.

He's been on the herbs for two weeks. The swelling in the knee did go down, but no faster than I think it would have without them. In place of the swelling is a small (about the size of my pinky fingernail) hard bump under the skin on the front of the kneecap. According to my resident medical professional, (ahem, husband.) it's probably just calcified scar tissue. There is no change to his back legs. He's still sound.

Ugh. I hate homeopathic vets. What a waste of money and time..

Still, he's sound and happy. I can't complain.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Sensitive Horses, Contact, and George Morris

Back in 2013, Guinness and I were having a lot of disagreements about contact. I didn't understand it very well, and he was (and still is!) very sensitive when it comes to accepting the hand. Things got so bad that I took 2 months of the summer off, and simply focused on establishing reliable contact. Remarkably, all of my work ended up paying off. After 2 months my trainer gushed over how different my horse and I's relationship had become, saying "now we can really get to work." And so we did.

My horse being difficult and sensitive when it comes to contact really frustrated me at first, but now I see it as a blessing. Because of Guinness, I am now able to take almost any horse and put them on the bit in the course of a single ride. Properly on the bit, too, not just putting their heads in a frame. It's a talent, and one I put a lot of sweat and tears into cultivating.

Do any of you want to cultivate this talent?

Of course you do. Pretty much everyone can do with a little more knowledge about working a horse on contact, especially a sensitive one. Anyone who asks me about learning more about contact gets the same advice I'm going to give you here. Go listen to George Morris.


Yes, I know George isn't a dressage coach. I know his riders aren't classical in the way many dressage riders are. I know the h/j world and the dressage world say nasty things about each other sometimes. But honestly, George Morris is one of the best lower level dressage coaches I've ever heard. His approach to getting a horse on the bit is excellent, and especially suited for those with sensitive horses (something that can be legitimately difficult to find in the dressage world!). His approach revitalized Guinness and I's relationship completely, and is 100% responsible for the fact that my difficult thoroughbred was able to accept being ridden in a double bridle this fall, and is working towards 3rd level. (Well, I mean, my trainer is responsible for a lot of that, but George taught me the contact basics!)

So for any of you out there intrigued, I'm going to link you to this amazing video from the 2015 Horsemastership Clinic with George. Go ahead and fast forward to 30:45, where George gets on one of his student's horses, a hot-headed thoroughbred mare. If you watch the previous bits of the lesson, you'll notice this mare completely flipping her rider the bird when it comes to contact.
Just after George mounts the problematic horse. Note her flipping his hands the bird.
In 20 minutes, George has this mare completely turned around. While still sensitive and reluctant to trust hands, he convinces the mare to give in to the contact and work over her back. The change is drastic.
Seriously. The mare doesn't look like the same horse at the end of his ride! I bet she was super sore later.

The best part about this video is George's commentary as he rides the mare. The whole thing is a master class in how to cajole a tough horse to accept contact, complete with some great lessons about how to develop more solid hands.

Obviously you can't learn to have perfect hands from a video, but I promise you can get a head start by implementing George's technique. I even picked up some more ideas to continue to build Guinness' trust in contact, and have started to implement them.

Do any of you like watching George Morris? Anyone else used his techniques to get a difficult horse on the bit? I promise they work. Let me know if you try them!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Starting the Half Pass

I think lateral work is becoming my favorite part of dressage. Going sideways is just pure fun. This enjoyment surprises me, as Guinness used to be just terrible at going sideways.

Back when we were working towards First Level, Guinness was so crooked that we couldn't get a straight leg yield to save our lives. Steady work on increasing his flexibility and his ability to come through evenly helped me to straighten out our leg yields. Even so, we still had issues. While responsive off my leg when it comes to going sideways, Guinness tends to lose his forward activity. It's always been a struggle to keep his impulsion in the movement.

Beyond the leg yield, shoulder-in, travers, and renvers feel somewhat magical. As our Second Level work has gotten much better, Guinness' flexibility has leapt forward. These movements have become less about creating the angle, and are now entirely about containing the angle and creating more expression and flexion. There's something much more fun about asking for more as opposed to begging to create some.

Now we are working on starting the half pass, and all of those lateral movements are coming together to create the most fun movement of all. Guinness is naturally as good at the half pass as he was terrible at the leg yield. In the half pass, the bend to the direction of movement forces me to manage his shoulders more effectively, and keeps him from falling into the movement. As those were our biggest problems in the leg yield, the half pass feels easy.

With the shoulder issues better managed, I feel free to ask for more forward. In fact, forward probably remains our biggest problem in the half pass. Guinness is very good at going sideways. But, he loses his impulsion. For me the half pass work has been all about keeping the sideways very shallow, and the forward very exaggerated.

So fun. I can't wait to see how we improve over the year!

Click for link to video (video footage from November)

Thursday, January 8, 2015

A Year in Review: 2014

With Guinness solidly in the middle of coming back to work, I'm taking a close look at where we were training wise before the accident and time off. You know what that means... a Year in Review post!

After my trainer recommended I make some drastic changes with my saddle, I finally leapt and bought a new one. It fits Pig a little funny, but ends up working out okay in the end.
Hello new-to-me Cliff Barnaby AVG!
We also start doing double-day rides on Sundays to increase Pig's fitness and strength as we work towards putting together our 2nd level work. All the extra work is needed, as Snowmaggedon 2014 kept us from work for almost 19 days straight!

The month starts off with me stuck at home with sickness and asthma issues. Instead of getting down, I talk about working on a soft forward halt, something my December lesson had focused on. I also go on a sickness-related shopping spree and buy a sparkly browband. Whee!
When I finally get back to riding (again!), I work on improving the depth of my seat (especially on the right seatbone), increasing fluidity in lateral work, and run through 2nd 1 for the first time.

We keep marching towards 2nd level work by working on the walk/canter transition. At the same time, I look forward to my trainer's return from Florida. Guinness starts getting a little resistant in contact, and I have to abandon my training plans to give him the rides he needs to feel confident again. Also, spring comes...


This is a crazy month, with an early schooling show to prepare for. I complain about preparing for a show when your horse and dogs are getting winter hair all over everything. I also talk fitness, and how it helped me survive a tough first lesson back with my trainer. She pushes me to add more yoga to my schedule to increase hip flexibility.
We go to Heartland Schooling Show, where we show 1st 3 and 2nd 1. Pig loses his brains in the Friday night school, but comes out lovely on Saturday. Though the test scores don't show it, we make an okay debut at 2nd. I break down the tests and talk about tension causing stiffness and resistance in Guinness. In talking about shows, I also give you guys a glimpse into how I keep my dressage whites so bright.

This month life really gets busy. I talk about managing the thoroughbred attitude in a dressage horse, something I'll struggle with all summer. I also go to our only USDF show of the year, but don't manage to write about it until June. At Harmony in the Park, we manage a 60% at 2nd level, but still don't feel ready to keep showing for the season. The lesson I do learn is about the warm up before going in the ring.

I really hit a wall when it comes to working at 2nd level. All the tricks are there, but the collection work is not. My position is partly to blame, and I work on changing my seat with great results. We also work on installing a real half halt, something that we've improved but are still working on. The key is not to override my horse.

Finally, at the end of the month I take my drop noseband in to have it shortened. While it's gone, I have a lesson in a regular cavesson and it goes great. I feel good about my drop noseband not being a crutch.

I share photos of Chincoteague Island, and early ponies in my riding career. In the ring, we are still working on half halts, which I am trying to get from my seat instead of my hands. All that work shines a light on my horse's crookedness and how heavy he is on my right hand.

In addition to taking Pig to visit Jen for a long weekend, I also give Pig a vacation to himself and from throwing tantrums, which he's been doing all month.

After the tantrums of July, I start August by taking the pressure off. Of course this turns into some good rides, where I realize Pig's flexibility has finally improved. After watching a clinic with my trainer's trainer, I start utilizing "the lean" to get Pig to weight his reluctant back right leg.

I start riding a ton of other horses, mostly green TBs. This is good, because Pig develops an abscess that takes him out of work just in time for my lesson.

This month is nuts, and I basically blog about how we're working to improve the canter and then do a couple of massive catch up posts. Which includes a brief mention of our final schooling show of the year.

I end up riding bareback for awhile while Guinness gets over some scurfy nastiness. I believe the issue was actually due to shedding hair getting matted with sweat. Ultra gross. Halloween sales also prompt me to try to find a candy Guinness will enjoy eating, and we discover the joys of candy corn. This discovery leads to lots of productive rides with lots of foamy mouth.
Of course, the end of October also brought the mud season to Indiana, and Guinness starts suffering from mud and temperature related arthritis flare ups. I contemplate injections, but ultimately decide not to stress too much unless it gets worse. So far, it has not.
On the training front, I make the realization that I have more influence over how Guinness carries his neck than I thought. My newfound ability to lower his neck leads to more overall relaxation in our rides. Harmony is on the horizon!

I start the month by heading to Kentucky for my anniversary weekend. I enjoy the trip so much, I write four posts all about vacationing in KY. I write about the Keenland Breeding Sale; Beer, Bourbon, and Barrels; Keeping Everyone Happy; and Where to Stay & The KHP.
I get back to basics with Guinness, examining where we are on our dressage journey, and end up also describing my methodical warm-up process. All of this, plus a month of great rides, has me feeling ready to start acclimating Pig to the double bridle, which goes smoother than expected.
Thinking about the double bridle has me considering whether expensive bits are really worth their pricetag, At the same time, I check out my trainer's trainer in a clinic, and get some great tidbits to share.
Also in November, I share photos from an equestrian show that performed at my work, and I shave another Guinness harp into Guinness' haunch.

I start the month off by talking about how inside-leg to outside-rein can sometimes get turned on its head in training. I also talk about developing a better canter as preparation for teaching Pig his changes. Much of the month is devoted to complaining about the weather, and the weather-related arthritis issues.
The end of the month sees Guinness and I involved in a horrible trailering accident. Luckily the posts between the accident and the end of the year are reasonably upbeat and happy updates.

Whew. What a year. Goodbye 2014! Bring on 2015!!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Dover's Outstanding Service

On December 20th, Guinness and I had a trailer accident. It was a long and terrifying ordeal. Guinness survived the accident in no-small part because he was wearing Dover Saddlery brand gear. Namely, Dover Pro shipping boots and a Northwind turnout sheet.
Dover Pro shipping boots took a beating, but are still useable. I was floored.
After the accident, I put together an email to Dover. I work in marketing, and I know how much a nice word about a company's products can mean. I wanted to thank Dover for putting together such wonderful products, and tell them how amazed I was that their blanket managed to hold together as we pulled my horse out of the trailer, only giving out after we had pulled him into a much more maneuverable position.

This blanket ripped, but only after pulling my 1500lb horse 2/3 of the way out of a horse trailer. It has no other damage. That's a ridiculously strong blanket!
Dover responded back to me with a few hours. They reached out with sympathy about the accident, and wanted to know how they could help. Despite having won the blanket in a contest, and not bought it, Dover immediately packed up a new Northwind Turnout and put it in the mail. This blanket does have a lifetime guarantee, but it's so strong I don't know how many times you'd have to use it!

When I opened the package from Dover, I found a surprise treat for Guinness.
I tried it. It's not bad...
Amazingly, Captain Picky immediately loooooved this treat. He snarfed down the whole thing, and kept at me to produce more. Carat Cake is definitely Pig approved!
Yep. Definitely Pig approved!
As Pig snarfed on his treat, I adjusted his blanket. Just like the last Northwind, this one fits him perfectly. I'm so happy Dover's blankets fit him so well. He's a tough fit. SmartPak's blankets aren't cut wide or tall enough for his shoulders or shark withers. The Northwind Turnout is beautifully cut for his shape. If you have a thoroughbred/warmblood shaped horse, look into this blanket. I'm obviously a fan.
Great fit! Finally a turnout sheet that doesn't look like he's wearing a square bag!
With the weather changing right now, Guinness is going to be getting a lot of use out of this blanket, so I'm glad to have another one to use. Just yesterday I bundled Guinness up in an old weighted blanket, with this turnout on top to cut the wind. I realized as I was doing up all the straps that all his blankets match now. They're all blue. We're awfully fancy now!

All bundled up! (Note, dangling bits are torn piping from the old blanket underneath the Dover blanket.)
Thanks Dover! Your customer service made a terrible event a little easier to deal with!

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Jumping Lessons and New Year's Stuff!

Like Jen talked about the other day, we just got back from our 5 day - 4 night New Years extravaganza vacation. Every year a group of ten or so college friend get together and rent a house somewhere for New Years. This year it was a renovated 18th Century barn. The thing was pretty awesome.

A cozy winter retreat
Photo of barn from There was definitely not that much snow this year! 
View from the cupola
I really loved the details that still existed in the old barn, and how super comfy it was renovated as a place to live. It was obvious the owners love the place and actually use, as well as rent, it. That really makes a difference! The owner's were home and made a ton of effort to ensure we enjoyed ourselves. Really wonderful stay!

... Except for being sick. Jen is calling this the year of The Gage Plague. Both my husband and I contracted some kind of terrible respiratory cold over Christmas, and managed to spread it to Jen and her husband. Sorry guys! Some day we'll all recover. Until then, I'm snarfing down water and mucinex like it's my job. This illness is seriously the worst. It's been a week, and I don't think I'll ever recover.

Luckily, I wasn't feeling so sick on the vacation that I couldn't join Jen for a lesson at Pleasant Heights Stable with trainer Jill Fagan. Jill put me up on an ancient bay TB with iffy hocks. Despite his rocking horse style gimp at all gaits and hocks that drew circles when they moved, he was a solid lesson horse who clearly knew and loved his job.

The flat part of the lesson was pretty simple, with Jill working hard to get me taking more weight in my heels and closing my hip angle. Apparently all that dressage work actually HAS opened my hip angle, despite what I may feel when working on more collected movements! Riding my trainer's horses as well as more at my barn has made me more comfortable adjusting to a new horse, and I enjoyed how this TB was very solid in the contact and willing to take it if I was consistent.

Jumping is where the lesson really got fun. The old TB clearly loves jumping, and perked up over fences. It's obvious his hock issues make waiting for the fences difficult, so he's developed a bit of a strong and rushing approach to the fences, complete with rocketship-style launch over everything. Getting him to wait for the striding felt nearly impossible.

Luckily, Jill's instruction was on point and she was able to get me putting more weight in my heels over each fence, reducing the amount of knee pinching I was doing to compensate. That helped to keep me more balanced and effective on top of my rushy horse.

Jill did complement my upper body position, remarking that my time doing dressage has really solidified my upper body. I'm happy to hear that, as rounding my shoulders and jumping ahead used to be some of my worst jumping faults!

Overall, the lesson was great fun! The middle of winter was a great time to take a moment and look back at jumping. It's good to know what flaws my dressage seat is putting into my jumping seat. It's so hard to remember to sink deep into my heels and close my hip angle after years of forcing my hips open!

If anyone is in the Northern Indiana/Michigan City area and wants to take a lesson, I highly recommend Jill. And for all you dressage riders and eventers, what sorts of flaws get pulled into your jumping seat from your dressage seat, and vice versa?

Saturday, January 3, 2015

2014 Goals Review | 2015 Goals

Guys. Last year flew by. In a lot of ways, I'm happy it's behind us. Last year was full of slogging through difficult training, terrible accidents, and hard personal moments. Let's just finish up the goals and move on, huh?

2014 Goals
  • Keep Guinness sound and happy, keeping his feet and arthritis managed well.
    • Pretty well managed. Guinness had one of his soundest years ever, until this fall when the warm/wet fall and early winter caused his arthritis to flair up in a big way. Also, the trailer accident has left some lingering swelling issues and soreness we are still working out.
    • Barring one abscess, Guinness had great feet all year.
  • Finish my 1st Level scores for my Bronze Medal.
    • Yes, and no. I did get another 60+% score, but unfortunately from the same judge. Still one more 1st level score to achieve.
  • Successfully show Second Level, with an average above 62% in both schooling and recognized shows.
    • Uh. Not quite. I did get a single 60% at a USDF show in May, but overall I didn't show enough to get the scores. In all, our training wasn't where it needed to be this year to get the scores. We could reasonably expect to get those scores at a show right now, but unfortunately in Indiana, those shows don't exist until April.
  • [Stretch] Get my Bronze Medal scores at Second Level
    • Not achieved. One score towards Bronze in the works. I'm okay with that.
  • [Stretch] Show at the Kentucky Horse Park
    • Big no on this one. Funds weren't there, nor was the time.
1/5 Goal Achievement. Poor showing 2014.
Guinness showing my feelings toward 2014.
2015 Goals for Guinness
  • Fully rehab Guinness from the trailer accident
  • Show at 2 USDF recognized shows before moving in June.
  • Finish up those damn 1st scores for the Bronze.
  • Finish up 2nd scores for Bronze.
  • Teach Guinness, King of the Auto-Change, the dressage changes.
  • Train Pig successfully to accept the double bridle, and fully prepare his bridle.
  • Successfully move Guinness to a new state, and settle him in.
  • Be competitive at IDS year end awards at 2nd level.
  • Buy a new horse trailer?
2015 Personal Goals
  • Rock out my upcoming graduate history/art history classes.
  • Put together an awesome application for grad school.
  • Decide on grad school programs, and apply the crap out of them.
  • Don't lose my mind.
  • Successfully negotiate a move, and get settled in.
  • Remember to take days off, and not stress over them.
  • Keep running. Be able to successfully run 5-6 miles at any point. Run 13.1 miles in a respectable time.
  • Less TV, and more books. Read one book a month, just for fun.
  • Improve my overall fitness and flexibility together. Do as much yoga as working out.
Yep, 2015 is going to be a crazy full year. I'm hoping to live my remaining months in Indiana to the best of my ability, and jump head first into life in a new place. A lot of my personal goals aren't terribly quantifiable, which bothers me. But I think keeping them vague is a good idea while the unknowable of this year unfolds.