Category Archives: Personal Stories

Somewhere Between Marginal and Sufficient

Anna and I finished our 2017 show season the last weekend of August at a close to home recognized USDF/USEF show, held at Longfellow Farm in Nottingham, NH.    It was a beautiful afternoon, and the show organizers really worked hard to try to make the show a special experience for competitors.  We each received a goody bag with magazines, lip balm, a box of sugar cubes and a gift certificate to a web site I cannot afford.  There were real flowers in the port a potties.  They had a mini trade fair and fresh food. Tons of my friends were there, riding, coaching and grooming, and the whole thing felt a little bit like an end of summer picnic where we were all trying to absorb the late season sun and fun.

As I was setting up my equipment, I listened to the women at the trailer next to mine go through their own preparations.  At first, I wasn’t sure who was riding and who was coaching, but ultimately determined there were two rookie riders doing their first Opportunity classes, a conscientious horse owner, and one extremely patient trainer.  The riders’ nervous energy was palpable as they struggled to pull up their new full seats, bemoaned the lack of pockets in same for sugar cubes, and valiantly figured out how to tack up their mounts while still remaining clean.  A gentleman wearing a camera stood nearby, wisely far enough back from the action so as to not get caught up in it but close enough by to be showing support.  When it came time to mount, neither could manage to do so off the top of a 5 gallon pail, the only mounting block available.  So their trainer offered each of them a leg up.

Compared to these two, who as it turned out were riding in my ring, directly after me, I was the epitome of calm.  I methodically went through my usual preparations, putting on the white base layer, the choker which fits a little too tightly, the hairnet which always leaves an indent on my forehead secured under my gray velvet helmet.  My hand me down Pikeur jacket was an expensive purchase for its original owner; I acquired it for just $30 and spent an additional $35 spent to tailor it, though it still doesn’t feel like it fits me right.  It is just a bit out of style and the collar has faded in the sun, which I’m sure no one notices but me. I felt no nerves, no worries.  I tacked up Anna, mounted off the top of my own upturned 5 gallon pail, and headed to the warm up.

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Anna at a show at the Tack Shack in Fremont, NH, in July.

Anna and I performed Third Level Test 1 for the fourth time this season, and got yet another 58%. I somehow mistimed my warm up, leaving me a bit shortchanged in terms of the preparation, but at the end of the day I really don’t think it would have mattered all that much.  While our performances have progressively improved, the scores have not.  We have been rocking those 50’s (it sounds like a dance party, which would be a whole lot more fun): 57,55, 59, 58.  Close but not quite there.

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I do appreciate the comments from the judges.  Judges have a challenging job; they must sit for hours, running “tapes” in their mind which include the purpose of the level and the expectations of a movement at that level, and then they translate these ideals promptly into a succinct statement which justifies their assigned score.  I have sat and observed judges and scribed.  I have graduated from the USDF “L” learner judge’s program.  I have spent hours judging at schooling shows, watching many, many tests in which there was very little dressage going on, trying to figure out how to offer feedback which will be perceived as helpful but not overly negative.  Judges are usually really trying to help the riders they are watching.

But that day at Longfellow, as I held my yellow sheet on which the judge noted “capable horse who is obedient in changes and must be rounder and better on bit and connected”, I just felt defeated.  Like, what is the point of this?  Dressage is such a dumb sport, to get all dressed up in these ridiculous uncomfortable penguin suits and go to shows where they put flowers in the port a potties and then we go and ride these redundant patterns, over and over again, hoping that for the FIVE MINUTES the judge sees our horse, we can meet some mystical expectation of “dressageyness”.  Why am I wasting my time and energy doing this? Why did I spend an hour to bathe and braid my horse and load equipment into my trailer and then ship down here? For a 58%?

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Anna doing what she does best at the Longfellow show.  Nom nom nom.

I have been teaching riding since I was eighteen years old, over half my life.  I sure thought I knew everything when I first started, and it wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I began to understand that I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.  I have at least five former students to whom I taught the absolute basics of how to put a horse on the bit, which have now ridden to Grand Prix and finished their USDF Gold Medals. There are probably another five who are riding at Prix St. George or Intermediare I.  Meanwhile, I am over here still splashing around in the dressage kiddie pool, unable to get my swimmies off.

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UNH June show.

 

In the Chronicle of the Horse’s August 7 issue, there was a great article about an amateur rider named Elizabeth O’Connor.  This spring, she finished her USDF Gold Medal riding a one eyed off track Thoroughbred which she trained herself.  To say that the pair had overcome adversity to achieve this result is an understatement.  It is a story meant to inspire, to remind readers that one doesn’t have to have the fancy warmblood and that with hard work, grit and determination, one can get to the big goal.

But what if that isn’t really true, most of the time?  What if hard work and determination isn’t enough?  When do you decide that maybe the judge’s comments are correct, and it is time to pack up and go home before the Dressage Police show up and throw you out?

I was still feeling pretty defeated when I brought Anna to the beautiful Chesley Brook Stables in Dover, NH, to ride with Verne Batchelder on Labor Day.  I was tired emotionally and physically, having just ridden the two day 60 mile ride at GMHA with my Thoroughbred, Lee, finishing in the remnants of Hurricane Harvey on Sunday.  Verne quickly picked up on the fact that I seemed…down.

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Schooling with Verne at Chesley Brook in July.  Thanks Lauren for the photo!

A former classroom educator and lifelong equestrian, Verne is probably the best coach I have ever worked with in terms of getting the maximum performance out of Anna.  He has seen me ride different horses, and he knows both me and this horse well.  As professionals, there are certainly times when we need a kick in the backside but there are also times when we need a boost.  Verne reminded me that sometimes the biggest complement that a teacher receives is when their student exceeds them.  He also pointed out that I am doing Third Level on a somewhat lazy horse whose genetics do not automatically set her up for the job.  Anna is trained.  58% is close.  We are not in the 40’s.

“We are not going to become the masters of Third Level,” proclaimed Verne.  “We are going to keep going.  We are going to get this pony to FEI.”

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Warm up at UNH show in June. 

I don’t know if we will or we won’t, but that is almost irrelevant.  Everything Verne said was just what I needed to hear.  I have made a conscious choice to own my own horses, to do my own training, and to commit to the process and animals I have.  Giving up when you hit the hard spots can sometimes be the right choice, but at other times you have to just keep plugging away with the faith that with enough persistence, even the roughest of surfaces wear smooth.  If my goal was simply to get to Grand Prix, or to finish a USDF Silver or Gold Medal, I could do that….but the fastest route would be a totally different path than the one I have taken.  I haven’t chosen to lease a schoolmaster, or to buy a big mover, or even to devote my training energy and tack time 100% to dressage. And for these reasons, I have become (in my opinion) a more robust equestrian.

When I returned to my trailer at the Longfellow show, I was untacking and unbraiding Anna, who hungrily mowed down the grass of the field we were parked in.  My neighbors returned, elated, victorious; they had finished their first ever dressage tests at a rated show.  The horse owner saw me and said, “wow, I saw your test, and your horse was amazing!  It was such a great ride!”

“Thanks,” I smiled, knowing even without having seen the results that it was probably just another 58%.

“We actually rode right after you in the same ring,” she continued, flushed with excitement. “And when we saw you cantering on the diagonal, and then doing one of those changes, we totally panicked, because that wasn’t the test we knew!  Your horse is just beautiful.”

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She is kind of beautiful.  🙂

I guess I didn’t really hear her then, but in retrospect I appreciate the comments more now.  Why are we doing this silly sport, this art, called dressage?  It can’t be just for the score…because the score only represents one moment in time. You have to do it for the day to day victories, and for the incremental improvements which show that your horse is progressing.  My horse does flying changes.  And she half passes.  And she is starting to understand the double bridle.  We may be working on many elements still, but there are many others which she does well.  She received 7’s on her walk pirouettes; Verne thinks they should be 8’s.  My horse is a Third Level horse.

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This was after finishing our first ever Third Level test.  I have to remember it is the journey which matters most!

So while other people may be diving into the deep end, don’t mind me.  I’ll just be over here in the shallow end, gradually creeping my way into the deeper water. A little better than marginal, but not quite yet sufficient.

 

 

 

 

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Keeping Up With the Jones’

I think every other photo or post on my social media stream is of someone’s baby horse doing some amazing accomplishment.  Whether they are winning on the line, learning to wear tack, or being taught groundwork basics, these youngsters just seem to be high achieving go-getters.

For one example, here is an excerpt from a recent sales post for a 2 year old Connemara cross (same age and cross as my Izzy):

“…Training so far has included all ground manners (cross ties, clips, loads on trailer and trailers well, leads, lunges, stands for farrier and vet, bathes, free jumps).  She has had a lot of saddle work as well as bridled (and longed in tack with no drama)…”

The mare looks lovely and has obviously had a busy spring.  But as I read the ad in early July, I have to admit that I felt, well, inadequate, in terms of my own work with Izzy.   At that time, Izzy’s resume was nowhere near so robust.

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Look, we cross tie like a grown up horse.

It’s not because she lacks the aptitude or temperament.  Izzy is simply the sweetest youngster I have ever interacted with. She is friendly, inquisitive and confident.  She arrived from Wisconsin the day before an authentic winter blizzard, and she settled right in. “No drama”, to use a recent quote.

Izzy is by the Connemara stallion Skyview’s Triton and out of a Thoroughbred mare named Honest Wit.  She was foaled on May 30, 2015, and so by my thinking she is a “young” two year old—when she arrived here in March, she wasn’t even quite two by the calendar.

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Fresh off the trailer on a very cold March morning in NH!

I spent time this spring just getting to know her better.   In working with Izzy, I want to make sure that each step of the process is taken as it comes, without hurry and with as much clarity of expectation as possible.  Izzy’s breeder, Janet M. Johnson of Dayton Ridge Farm, spends time with all of her youngsters and they work on learning “age appropriate” skills.  Izzy was already familiar with leading, grooming and having her feet handled when she arrived.  But even so, certain things were new.  The first time my farrier worked with her, Izzy regarded the foot stand with quite a look of horror and wanted nothing to do with it.  She is always a little funny with her right front hoof and sometimes pulls it away.  We just kept patiently handling her feet daily until it became routine.

One day in April, I was grooming Izzy in the barn aisle, holding her lead.  She was a little fussy and almost before I knew it, the lead had slid through my hands and Izzy was galloping down the driveway.  After a (terrifying for me) gallivant all about the front side of the property, and with the help of my housemate Lisa and a bucket of grain, she was back in hand.  But clearly we needed a better system.

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So I began introducing her to the cross ties.  I did one tie at a time, clipping the lead to the opposite side of the halter and holding it while I worked on grooming.  She explored the boundaries, and the first day that she hit the end of her tie I held my breath, not sure of what to expect.  Izzy pulled for a moment, and then just stood there.  Once I knew her response to the pressure seemed reasonable, I added the second crosstie.  And just like that…we crosstied.

While I was dealing with my knee issues this spring, intern Kelly handled most of the “walk Izzy around the property” duties.  But after recovering from my surgery, I began doing more “walk abouts” myself, taking Izzy up and down the driveway, leading from both sides, practicing transitions between the halt, walk and eventually the trot.  I added voice commands and started carrying a short bat, then a dressage whip.

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Intern Kelly, with her canine assistant Fox, take Izzy for a walk about.

As the black flies emerged in April, Izzy learned to wear a fly hat.  Bug spray made her very nervous at first, but with calm repetition you can now spray her while she stands loose in the field.

In late spring/early summer, I introduced Izzy to wearing a saddle pad.  I let her smell it, rubbed it on her body, and let her see it come up and over her back from both sides.  “No drama”.  From there, it was an easy step to wearing the soft cotton surcingle, even if I have to adjust it to the absolute smallest setting. Izzy still isn’t a fan of having it tightened, but once it is set, she seems unconcerned.

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First time wearing a saddle pad. 

I set a few further goals for her for the summer.  When presented in hand, two year olds must wear a bridle with a bit, so I felt it was appropriate for her to learn how to do that.  I wanted her to load onto and off my straight load two horse trailer quietly, and then go for a few short rides.  And I wanted to introduce her to the basics of longeing; in hand, we had started with the voice commands, but I wanted her to understand the concept of moving in a circle, responding to the handler’s voice and body cues, and to be comfortable with the equipment on and around her body. I wanted to do all of this through a series of short playful sessions, so that she enjoyed interacting with humans and remained her confident, inquisitive self.

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First day in a bridle.  Still sorting out the bit.

I am pleased to say that we have achieved all of that and more.  On each step of the journey, Izzy has remained fairly willing and mostly obedient.  Like any youngster, she has her moments of silliness and lost focus, but more often than not she stays mentally on task.  Izzy calmly wears her bit and bridle, she does transitions in hand and on a longe circle, and has happily walked and trotted over low cavaletti in hand and on the longe.  She ate several meals on the trailer and went for four short rides, two with a friend and two on her own.  And as an added bonus activity, she has been ponied off her turn out buddy Marquesa around the farm.  Maybe if I get brave I will take the pair of them out on the trails to see more of the world!

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Learning to “pony”– all three of us together!

It is funny, though, because in spite of all this success, when I see a post about someone else’s overachieving baby horse, it is hard to not compare.  Izzy doesn’t free jump (I have no where to do that, anyway), and I can’t really say that she is confirmed on the longe (she certainly doesn’t canter), and what the heck is that contraption they are longeing that youngster in anyway?  Should I be using some contraption?  I haven’t taken her off property to any breed shows, young stock shows or in hand future intergalactic performance horse testings.  She has yet to wear a saddle.  Am I doing this right? My friend’s two year does [insert accomplishment here].  Is this what human parents feel like when they find out that little Susie down the road went to elite swim camp or Johnny across the street just won a ‘budding artist’ award, while their own child is playing in a puddle and eating dirt?

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When learning, it is important to have good role models.

But then I remind myself to take a step back.  Because it really doesn’t matter what all of those other youngsters are doing.  The journey we are on with our own animals is just that—ours.  Izzy has successfully stepped up to—and exceeded—my expectations for her learning and development this summer.  In spite of the transition into the school year, and available daylight growing shorter, I will still have the opportunity to play with her more before winter settles in, to confirm her basic longeing, and maybe even experiment with some basic long lining to learn about steering and pressure on the bit.  But there is no hurry, no rush.  If all Izzy does this fall is continues to mature and develop physically, the time which we already spent laying a foundation this summer will be like “money in the bank” next spring.

Horses do not progress on our schedule.  My mentor Denny Emerson says all the time that the day you come into the ring with an agenda is the day you are not going to get where you want to go.  There is a difference between making progress towards your set goals and making progress, no matter what.  So I guess I will try to worry less about what everyone else’s baby horses are doing and just listen to mine.

She is pretty darn persuasive.

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The “golden girl”.

Living your Values

A lifetime ago, when I was an undergraduate, I thought that I would be leading a very different type of life.  I graduated with a B.S. in Environmental Conservation, with a specialty in Environmental Affairs, and I was really interested in environmental education.  I wanted people to understand about the amazing beauty and balance in our natural world, hoping that such exposure would lead to an appreciation which would encourage conservation.   While in school, I studied abroad at the School for Field Studies in Nairobi (Kenya),  and interned at MASSPIRG in Boston (MA), the Seacoast Science Center in Rye (NH), and the New England Aquarium in Boston (MA). I stuffed envelopes, editing mailings, collected signatures and led tidepool tours, gave interpretive talks on Seacoast history and presented countless sessions on the mighty Homarus americanus (aka the American lobster).  But on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, I served them on paper plates at the local seafood emporium in order to help pay for school.

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Your H. americanus “fun fact” is that the average 1 pound lobster is 6-7 years old.

Life is full of these little paradoxes and tradeoffs.  “How is the swordfish tonight?” my customers would ask.  “Oh, it’s endangered.  Perhaps a nice salad?” I would reply with a laugh, as though I were kidding.  My father still thinks that one of the funniest things I have ever said was that I served endangered species on paper plates to pay for my degree in conservation.

While I still love natural history, marine biology and believe in environmental conservation, my passion for horses and for riding has always been stronger.  Upon graduation, I worked briefly in an elementary school but shortly after found myself managing a small horse farm and teaching some lessons.  That led to other management positions and more teaching, and I never really looked back.

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A beautiful spring sunset.

It is easy to disconnect from reality when you hang in the equine world for too long.  Let’s face it—there are some facets of what we do which just smack of First World Privilege.  It is something which from time to time has really bothered me—especially when clients get all worked up because Blaze is in the wrong colored blanket/boot set, or when I hear the amount of money which someone has dropped on a new horse, saddle or trailer.  In the July/August 2017 issue of USDF Connection, Susan Reed of Albuquerque, NM, wrote in her letter to the editor, “…I cannot imagine life without my animals.  However, when I see the amount of money that is spent on horses, equipment, training, and so on, I wonder at the value systems of those who choose that lifestyle….I taught school for 25-plus years and was distressed to see that my horses had better foot care, food and medical care than many of the kids in my classes…Where is the balance between making the world a better place for all creatures and being passionate about an art form, which to me is dressage?  I haven’t found a good answer yet.” (Emphasis is mine).

I felt chills when I read Ms. Reed’s letter.  Her sentiments echo the little voice in my own head, the one which I ignored for many years but which has become louder and louder in recent months.  What have I done to make this world a better place?

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This Eastern phoebe has been nesting on my front porch this year.  She is on her second clutch of eggs.

When I moved to Cold Moon Farm two years ago, one of my goals was to make it a model of implementing sustainable practices in horse farm management.  At the same time, I run on a shoestring budget, so I know that any progress would be gradual.  What could be overwhelming can sometimes be easier to manage in smaller chunks.  In the long term, I hoped that I could learn some “best practices” and then use media to help spread the word to more equestrians.

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This gray tree frog was hanging out on the back pasture fence (no worries— this electrical wire isn’t “hot”!)

Progress has been slower than anticipated.

But slow progress is still progress, and this spring I took part in the New Hampshire Coverts Program, put on annually by UNH Cooperative Extension.  This three day workshop is geared towards land owners, managers and conservationists to train them to promote wildlife habitat conservation and forest stewardship.  I can’t believe how much information was packed into that workshop—I think most of us left feeling both overwhelmed and invigorated.

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Becoming a Coverts Cooperator is exciting to me for several reasons.  First, participating in the program allowed me to return to my “roots”, so to speak, and spend time with other conservation minded individuals.  Secondly, it showed me that becoming an effective land steward doesn’t happen overnight, and that there are many resources available for support and assistance.   Finally, I realized that it really is okay to try to manage this farm to meet my objectives; in other words, creating well placed riding trails, pastures and other horse areas is acceptable if that is what I want to do with my land.  I can emphasize improved habitat opportunities in other places on the property, and by managing the “horse parts” of the farm well, I can reduce the negative impact they might otherwise have on local ecosystems.

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White-throated sparrows are ground nesters, and so any brush hogging in shrub land areas should be done in August or later, so as to not disturb their young.

After attending the workshop, I contacted Strafford County Extension Forester Andy Fast and set up an appointment for him to visit the farm.  We walked all around the property but especially paid attention to the 26 acres which are in current use.  Two of these acres are classified as “farmland” (aka, field) and the rest are woodlot.  There are some basic trails out there but they need a brush hog and additional clearing to make them more usable for the horses.  Andy was excited by the amount of white oak on the lot, reminding me that it is a valuable food source for many species.  He recommended applying for funds through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to create a Forest Management Plan, which would allow for a possible small timber harvest.  Well planned timber harvests can have many benefits, including improving forest health, increasing diversity, improving wildlife habitat, and possibly yielding a little income which could then be used to improve the trails.

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Wild turkey hen and her eight “turklets” in the front pastures.  Eat more ticks, please!

I also participated in two further trainings.  First, I have become a “Speaking for Wildlife” volunteer, another program coordinated through UNH Cooperative Extension.  Groups such as senior centers, youth organizations, conservation commissions, libraries, etc., can sign up to have trained volunteers present a number of scripted slide shows on topics such as NH wild history, bat conservation, vernal pools and more.  Our commitment is to try to give just one presentation per year, which seems pretty reasonable!  I also attended a field workshop on managing shrub land and young forest lands for wildlife and bird species.  We visited two different sites, identifying nearly ten species of birds and actually mist netting two.

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This beautiful male Indigo Bunting now sports an ID band after flying into the mist net. 

For me, all of these actions have been tangible, rejuvenating steps which help to bring my life back into alignment with my core values.  I love horses—that will never change, and I continue to be passionate about riding, coaching and training others.  I will continue to take active steps towards achieving my personal goals with horses and for my business.  But at the same time, it is equally important to me that I am working to make this world a better place, and to not get so all consumed in the accuracy of a ten meter circle that I forget to appreciate all of the beauty and open space around me.

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We installed three homemade bluebird boxes this spring; one housed tree swallows, and a second seems to have Eastern blue birds in it now.

Stay tuned for further updates on future actions which will help me to “live my values”.

Motivation, Apathy, and “Coming About”

Mo*ti*va*tion (noun) the general desire or willingness of someone to do something

Synonyms:  enthusiasm, drive, ambition, initiative, determination, enterprise.

Motivation, or the lack thereof, is something which we all have to deal with from time to time.  When it comes to pursuing my riding goals, fitting riding time into my busy schedule, and/or doing all the various chores related to maintaining my horses and farm, lack of motivation is something which I have only rarely struggled with. In fact, skipping a ride for even valid reasons (pouring buckets of rain, celebrating a holiday) or shirking on a duty (not grooming my retired horse every day) usually causes me to go into a state of self-flagellating guilt.

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Until this spring.

This spring has been tough on me for reasons wholly unrelated to my horses. The truth is that there is some pretty heavy “life” stuff going on, which I will get through, but the going is pretty deep right now, and I am getting tired of slogging.  Enough about that but suffice it to say that this issue has taken a TON of life energy to manage and it has left me feeling depleted, insecure and not confident.

In addition, for the past five years, I have been dealing with on again/off again knee swelling and pain which has defied a causative diagnosis but which has responded well to draining and steroid injections.  Usually it happened to one knee at a time and then the joint stayed quiet for months to years in between flare ups and treatment.  This January, both of my knees decided to gang up on me.  There was the “bad” one and the “worse” one.  This time around, my doctor decided to schedule an exploratory arthroscopy to try to get some definitive answers.  While all the “pre approvals” and pre-operative appointments were scheduled, the pain in my knees just escalated.  My knees and calves swelled.  Riding went from being non painful to bearable to misery at anything other than the walk.  Before my surgery, doing really normal people things, like putting on pants and socks, was nearly impossible to do without pain.  So you can imagine that giving proper leg aids was also a challenge.  I felt useless and ineffective on a horse.

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With the help of Intern Kelly, one spring project which got done was the installation of stall mats in the barn aisle.

Being in pain stinks.  Chronic pain becomes like a mantle that you can’t quite put down.  You can numb it, you can suppress it, but it never really goes away.   You don’t sleep as well, you don’t eat well, and you start to weigh your actions in terms of whether the pain they will incur is worth the outcome.  Example:  is it worth climbing the stairs one more time to get a sweater?  Or would I rather just be cold today?

So it would be easy to label this pain as the cause for my loss of motivation.  I tried to keep going, but I found that increasingly I would let excuses slip in to justify not riding.

“It is too cold.”

“It looks like rain and I don’t want to get my tack wet.”

“The footing is too muddy/snowy/icy/dry/uneven.”

“I have no one to ride with and my horse is going to be upset to leave the group.”

Or I might manage to ride, but only stayed on for thirty minutes before being “done”.

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Mid April in southern New Hampshire did not bring inspirational riding weather.

I struggled to set any type of goals for the 2017 season at all.  I blamed it on not knowing what the outcome of the arthroscopy was going to be, and therefore how long I would be out of commission. But in reality, I was feeling overwhelmed by the effort it would take to actually DO any of the things which I could imagine doing.  You know, things like actually hitching the trailer, putting tack in it, and going somewhere with a horse.

I had had some tentative plans to enter a few early season distance rides with Lee.  I even got so far as to put one entry in the mail.  But I scratched just days later, after having a really bad weekend in terms of knee pain.  This was a perfectly acceptable reason for not doing the ride.  But the underlying truth was that I couldn’t stomach the idea of doing all the work to get ready to go to the ride, loading/hitching the trailer, or getting up super early to be there on time.  The ride itself was the least of my worries.

WTF was wrong with me????

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Izzy has the right idea.

Apathy ap*a*thy (noun) Lack of interest, enthusiasm or concern

Synonyms: Indifference, lack of interest, lack of enthusiasm, lack of concern, uninterestedness, lethargy, ennui

My Facebook feed is dominated by horses, dogs and cats, sprinkled here and there with a few posts about children or nature.  On any given Sunday, dozens of people I know have been out and about with horses in tow, attending clinics, dressage and jumper shows, schooling cross country, attending trail rides and more.  They post their pics and rave about how wonderful the day was and how much fun they had.  This spring, I would just look at these posts and think… “huh, that seems like a lot of work.  Good for them.” And I would stare out my kitchen window at my four horses and sip my coffee.

I did the basic chores.  The horses were groomed, fly sprayed, shod, and had their spring vaccines.  I went to get additional hay to carry us through the season and ordered grain.  I sent the trailer for its spring tune up and inspection. I laundered winter blankets and scrubbed and stored winter shoes. I started transitioning the horses to grass turn out.

I rode Lee and Anna four or five days per week.  Lee hacked or longed.  Anna did light dressage schools, hacked, and practiced wearing a double.  Izzy went for walks on the driveway and learned how to stand on the cross ties and wear a fly hat.  Marquesa was groomed and ridden by friends.  It was all done by rote.

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Intern Kelly was a great riding buddy this spring!

I tried to forgive myself for feeling this way.  I tried to be patient with my body, which seemed determined to make me miserable.  I tried to set super small goals each day (like, today I will do ONE extra thing that needs to get done).  I tried, with all of the morale I had left to muster, to not completely stop moving. I worried that if I did that, I would never get moving again.

Coming About:  A nautical term, used in sailing to indicate that the bow of the boat will start to turn through the wind

Synonyms:  Helm’s Alee

I had my knee surgery on May 23.  After being in so much pain for so long, the surgery wasn’t much worse.  Unfortunately, the procedure hasn’t yielded any definitive answers but the overall cleanup which occurred (along with yet another drain/injection of the other knee) has left me feeling better than I have in months.  I am still not allowed to ride, but I have had some students coming up to keep Lee and Marquesa going.  I might try to put Anna on the longe line later. We’ll see.

While I have been on lay up, I have had plenty of time to think and analyze and assess.  And what I think I have come to is that how I feel is how I feel…and it is okay.  Maybe I don’t have huge performance goals for the season with my horses.  But that doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy them and keep moving forward.  Sometimes, your body and soul just needs some time to heal.  That is where my life energy is focused right now.

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Signs you haven’t been driving your truck much:  the spiders are holding your Antenna Cactus hostage.

I set a few small goals for myself for the period during which I am going to be laid up:  1) re-read The New Basic Training of the Young Horse by Ingrid and Reiner Klimke 2) work on setting up a website for my farm 3) write a few blogs.  I have done some work on all three.

Last Saturday, I worked at the Central New England Region Show Jump Rally as the course designer and a judge.  The weather was pretty much perfect—sunny, slight breeze, temps in the mid to upper 60’s.  The courses rode well and the riders seemed to have fun.  I was surrounded by friends, students, former students and parents. Several of the riders were trying to qualify to compete at the USPC National Championships later this summer and it was exciting to see them ride up to the challenge.  I actually had fun.  I started to remember what that felt like.

Tues May 30 was Izzy’s birthday.  I took a few conformation photos of her so that we can compare her in one year’s time.    She has been coming into the barn independently for grooming and handling daily.  She makes me smile whenever I enter the paddock with her friendly and inquisitive nature.

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Getting two year olds to stand still for conformation photos is challenging. DRF Isabela 5/30/17

Slowly, I can feel some of my motivation coming back.  I can guarantee that I won’t be taking the world by storm this year.  But maybe, just maybe, I can get moving in the right direction again.

With Anna, I hope to make it out for some lessons with Verne Batchelder when he is in town, and maybe make it to one dressage show.  With Lee, maybe I can do some further exploration of my local trail network, or ship up to Tamarack Hill to ride with Denny, or to Pawtuckaway State Park to ride with friends.  Maybe we do a competitive ride, maybe we don’t. I can guarantee you that Lee doesn’t care.  I want to introduce Izzy to the trailer, do some basic in hand work, and improve her behavior with the farrier.

This is progress. These are actual tasks I can see myself accomplishing. There is hope.

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I am usually a results driven person, and many of my personal goals have revolved around competition.  But as Denny (Emerson) says frequently, at the end of the day, no one cares about how you did at a show except for you, and your mother (and she only cares because she wants you to come back in one piece).  Perhaps the theme for this season will be to learn to enjoy the journey and to find a balance between the process and the result.  I hope that by looking at my goals from a different perspective, I may be able to make progress towards them without starting to feel overwhelmed, apathetic or detached.

In this way, I will try to Come About. As with turning a boat, it won’t happen immediately and I may have to fight the tides.  But so long as I keep pressure on the tiller, I should see this ship turn.

A Clinic with Jan Ebeling:  Keep the Details Clear

In mid April, 2017, Linden Woods Farm in Durham, NH hosted a two day clinic with Olympian Jan Ebeling.  A serious rider and competitor, Ebeling brought his attention to detail and clear training system to the east coast, to the benefit of horses and riders ranging from First Level through FEI.

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Jan Ebeling

I was only able to attend day two of the clinic due to work commitments, but felt fortunate to be able to audit several sessions before taking my own lesson on Annapony at the end of the day.  As I watched Ebeling work with a series of different types of horse, several themes emerged.  In particular, Ebeling emphasized POSITIVE ENERGY, CLEAR EXPECTATOINS, MINIMAL BEND and CLARITY IN THE AIDS, regardless of the level of training of the horse or movement being executed. Calm and systematic riding was the order of the day.

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Ebeling “debriefs” with clinic rider Kara Riley-King, who rode Zamiro.

Ebeling told the audience that he always starts his training sessions the same way, with a progressive warm up.  “I start by establishing a steady tempo and use larger circles and changes on the diagonals,” said Ebeling.  “Nothing too tight.”

Ebeling reminded riders that all horses have an easier side, which is usually tracking to the left.  This is the best direction to start both the warm up phase of a ride as well as to introduce new figures and movements.  He recommends spending three to four minutes on each side, then adding in some work at the canter, before offering the horse a short break.

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Emily Staley on Gatsby work on their free walk.

“Once the horse has had a warm up, they are ready for a more collected tempo and sitting work,” says Ebeling.  For all horses save the most green, Ebeling believes in the rider working out of the sitting trot post warm up.  For a greener horse, Ebeling says that he might stay in the posting trot a bit longer, especially if the contact and connection become less consistent in the sitting work.

For the greener horses, Ebeling emphasized the critical importance of riding with positive energy, which he says prevents the horse from thinking that a slower tempo is acceptable. At the same time, the rider must be careful to not ask for more tempo than the horse is able to keep balanced.   “Most horses are pretty happy to go forward if you make it their habit,” says Ebeling.  “If you have inconsistency in the frame, add a little bit of tempo, keep riding forward, and keep the hand the same.”

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Jan Ebeling raved about Leslie Ann Guilbault’s young mount, Belfast (owned by a sponsor), saying, “He is a great horse.  A talented horse.  I am looking for weaknesses.  Mostly he needs to be stronger still.”

Establishing consistency in the expectations and performance was a theme which Ebeling returned to frequently.  The free walk is another area in which Ebeling emphasized this idea.  “The free walk should always go to the buckle and the rider must make the habit of always expecting a brisk, energetic walk,” says Ebeling.  “When there is a transition from free walk to medium walk, the steps and frame become shorter but the rhythm and energy stay the same.”

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Anna and I during our set.

The use of transitions between and within gaits was another theme which ran amongst the sessions.  When riders do transitions on green horses, the exercises serve to tune up the horse’s understanding of the aids.  It is important that the rider keep their aids consistent and clear.  One example Ebeling brought forward was the position of the rider’s outside leg in the canter.  “You must be super clear with your leg aid in the transitions, bending your knee and bringing the leg back,” says Ebeling.  “Keep the outer leg back in the canter, not just for the transition, but also to support the gait.  It must stay in place—no exceptions.”

Ebeling used transitions in many ways with riders throughout the day.  Some horses did trot-walk-trot transitions in fairly quick succession, sometimes with only three strides in between each.  With others, he shortened the timing so that the transition became more of an “almost walk” transition, or instead asked the horse to go into a short lengthening.  Ebeling asked one rider to send her horse forward on the short side and then collect them through the shoulder in into an “almost walk” transition, and then ride forward into a ten meter volte.   These frequent transitions challenged the horse’s balance and encouraged them to respond promptly to rider’s aids. For greener horses, Ebeling likes to use a little voice in the transitions.  If the horse makes mistakes, such as coming above the bit or choosing the wrong lead, Ebeling reminded riders to not get into a battle with their horse; instead, just make them do the transition again.

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I must have liked something about this transition with that smile on my face!

Throughout the day, horses and riders both made mistakes.  Ebeling reminded all that this is a necessary part of learning, but emphasized that it is important to not give the horse a break on a poor transition or movement.  Ebeling says that when the horse repeatedly makes the same mistake on a figure, it is up to the rider to figure out how to change the cycle.  This may mean making the exercise easier for the horse, overexaggerating an aid, or appreciating that at the moment, the exercise may require more strength than the horse has developed.  “Even when the mistake is repeated, remind yourself that it is just a phase,” says Ebeling.  “It can be frustrating, but don’t panic.  It is just a matter of practicing.”

Ebeling also spoke of the importance of doing movements and transitions at different places within the arena.   This can also be helpful when a horse starts to anticipate an exercise.   “The same exercise, done at a different place in the arena, isn’t really the same exercise,” says Ebeling.  “The goal is to get the horse to do the things you want so that you are able to praise them…you are always looking for the moment where you can praise them for doing the right thing.”

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Practicing.

Being effectively able to apply the aids requires that the rider understand what the correct aids should be, and then to experiment with the intensity of each aid to determine the optimal application.  One rider struggled with her half pass.  Ebeling reminded her that it was important to keep the shoulder fore position as she turned her horse onto the line of the half pass, then to ride sideways through the use of the inner leg and outside rein; he said the half pass is basically two movements in one.  But too much outside leg causes the haunches to lead, and too little will prevent the forward and sideways movement from developing.  The rider must find the balance in the aids for success.

Ebeling reminded riders that keeping their position consistent is one of the quickest and most efficient ways to get the horse to understand the aids.  “You must be very disciplined,” says Ebeling.

Ebeling told several riders (me included!) to be careful with their bending aids.  It is easy to get the horses over bent to the inside, but the aid which needs to be emphasized is the outside rein.  “Bend only a little and then get light,” says Ebeling.  “Backing off on the rein aids doesn’t mean dropping them, it is like a softening.  When you think to give, it is not necessary to move the arm, just relax the muscles.  Finish every half halt with a release.”

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In my ride with Ebeling on Anna, these themes came forward yet again.  I was a bit nervous going into the ride, as I was dealing with a knee injury which prevented me from effectively closing my right leg aids.  And though she sported a trace clip, Anna definitely felt that this early spring afternoon was warmer than she liked given the amount of winter coat she was still wearing. In spite of these variables, we tried our best to step up to Ebeling’s program.

Here is some video of Anna early in our set with Jan Ebeling.

In our ride, Ebeling worked to help me keep Anna more positively forward (yes, the entire Story of Our Lives).  He reminded me to watch the balance between the inside and the outside rein, particularly when tracking right, and that I need to be more steadfast in the consistency in the outside rein.  One easy tip he offered was to increase the tension of my ring finger on the reins.  Most riders will grip more tightly with their index and middle fingers, but increasing the tension of the ring finger will allow the rein contact and connection to remain steady yet not become restrictive.  Ebeling had me ride Anna virtually straight into each corner, and then ask for only about two to three strides of bend in the corner itself.

A little further along…contact is getting more consistent.

Ebeling also had me ride many trot canter transitions to sharpen her response to the leg aid.  In the upward transition, I had to make sure to not allow my shoulders to tip forward and to remain soft in the rein contact without letting go.  For the downward transition, Ebeling wanted me to use virtually no rein pressure at all but instead use seat and voice aids…then immediately ride steady and forward.

Some transitions.

While I felt that the quality of our connection improved through the set, I was a little disappointed in Anna’s overall lackluster response to the forward aids.  In my opinion, she got a bit hot and tired and would have done better with a few shorter/intense sets rather than longer ones.  I found it really difficult to keep her stepping up into the bridle, and in reviewing the photos and videos after the ride, she looks like she is barely round.  Ebeling as well seemed a little flummoxed by her lackadaisical nature, and suggested that it might be helpful to treat her like an event horse again by taking her out for some gallop sets (not an option till my knee heals, I am afraid!).   He also suggested looking at her feeding regimen to see if there is a way to feed increased energy without increasing her weight.

Serpentine work.

While I was a bit disappointed by the quality of my own performance, overall I really enjoyed watching Ebeling teach the other clinic participants and appreciated the consistency in his message.  I would definitely come audit again, and perhaps ride once I am healed up!

Some nice walk work and then some tired trot!

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I would like to thank my friend Mikaela for coming along with us!  She was the best coffee getter, pony holder, photo taker and all around cheer leader ever!

 

Winter Break Training Projects 2017 Edition

In the downtime between our two semesters at the University of New Hampshire, I always try to tune up a few school horses or work with some of our newer herd members to get to know them a little bit better. Increased tack time is always good for the soul (even if the cheeks end up a little chapped from the cold!) and I appreciate the opportunity to work with different horses.  There are so many lessons to be learned.

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Sometimes winter is not so much fun. At least getting to ride extra ponies makes up for it.  Sort of.

I think school horses are simply some of the most amazing horses on the planet.  They tolerate all manner of riders and need to decipher their aids.  The riders who sit on them are, by definition, students, which means that those aids may lack refinement, finesse and sophistication.  It is the exceptional school horse that can absorb all of this without ill effect, and it is my opinion that they deserve having one consistent person work with them for a period of time every now and then.  The horse and rider have a chance to connect more deeply, and if the rider is experienced enough, they can help to break through any blocks or defensiveness that the horse may have installed in an effort to absorb some of the confusion in the aids.

During the recent winter break, I worked with three horses which are used in our dressage-only classes: Fiona, Otto and Tino. Despite all being dressage specialists, they each require a different kind of ride to elicit their best performance.  Riding each horse helped to remind me of details which I then applied to my usual dressage ride, Anna.

Fiona

Fiona is a chestnut Thoroughbred type mare who has been with our program for several years at this point.  Of all the many horses I have tried out for the program, Fiona is by far one of my favorites.  She is “my type” of ride; slender, athletic, a little sensitive, and of course, a mare.  I always enjoy reconnecting with her during our breaks.

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Fiona, through the ears. 

It has been almost one year since I last sat on Fiona, and I was a bit disconcerted at first by how much more defensive she felt this year than last.  By “defensive”, I mean that her initial reaction to any soft contact was to brace and become hollow, and she was also reluctant to actively reach with her hind legs.  It was my sense that Fiona was protecting herself, but the question was, from what?

I started by re-checking her tack, which by and large looked ok.  She was definitely due for a re-shoe, so we had that taken care of.  I then started a program which encouraged Fiona to begin to reach through her entire topline and stretch into the connection. While this idea is a key principle of dressage, it seemed to me as though she had a little bit lost her faith in that concept.

I very rarely warm up a horse at the trot completely off contact (although I always start with a ten minute or so free walk on a loose rein).  But with Fiona, I had to break my own rules.  First, Fiona absolutely needed the walking in phase; if I had a shorter than usual period of time to ride her, this was not an area where I could cut corners.  Once I moved on to the warm up trot, I didn’t shorten my reins at all, instead allowing Fiona to warm up while carrying her topline wherever she felt like she needed to with a completely floppy rein.  I didn’t ask her to align her shoulders and hips or even do more than the most basic of soft bend in the corners.  I kept all of the turns sweeping and wide and changed direction regularly.  After a few minutes like this, I very, very tactfully shortened the reins until I had a delicate, soft, pushing-toward-the-mouth contact, and I stepped Fiona into a canter.

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Fiona several years ago, with one of our graduates. 

For this horse, at this time, it is the canter which does the best job of loosening her up and encouraging her to let go.  The left lead seems to be more comfortable for her than the right, so I usually started there.  I never forced her to connect but instead encouraged it.  In the canter, Fiona is more willing to reach underneath herself with the hind leg while also allowing the rider to maintain a soft, steady, elastic feeling in the reins.  But the nanosecond that the rider gets greedy and holds too much in the rein or blocks with the seat, Fiona hollows again.  The rider must practice patience.

I went through this slow, gentle warm up with Fiona every single ride.  It honestly would take ten minutes of walking and twenty of trotting and cantering before she started to feel even remotely soft or fluid. If you pushed her harder before then, she would quite literally stop, or kick out at the leg—a sign that the question was ‘too much’.  It would be easy to label her as being resistant (“this horse won’t connect”) but I think it was much more an example of ‘this horse can’t’.  She had been blocking her body to such a degree for so long that every exercise session was only dedicated to unlocking her muscles again.

By the end of a ride, Fiona was loose, supple, forward and through.  She stayed soft in the jaw, chewing the bit and generating the “lipstick” that we like to see in a dressage horse.  Her responsiveness to the aids improved dramatically; Fiona at the end of a ride was like a completely different horse.

Fiona is not as young as she used to be, and she tends to be hard on herself out in turnout, so my sense is that all of these factors, plus her inherent personality, are simply starting to add up in creating this level of “block” in her body.  I think the lessons which I took away from working with Fiona this winter were 1) that the rider can always be more patient 2) sometimes you have to throw your usual “rules” out the window and experiment to figure out what works best—the horse is always right!  And of course, riding Fiona reinforced a rule that we always can be reminded of:  force will get you nowhere.

Otto

Otto is a wonderful little petite Ferrari of a horse, who joined our program late this summer.  He is trained through Third Level, and having seen him go a few times, I just knew that I would enjoy riding him.  As I work towards bringing Anna up to Third Level, I thought it would be helpful to take advantage of the chance to ride a schooled horse through some of those movements again.

Otto is half Arabian, and he has a tremendous “go” button.  I made the mistake on our first ride of carrying a dressage wand; it was so not needed!  The students had told me that he gets heavy in the hand, and I had personally observed him tending to tuck his nose in towards his chest and get stuck in the kind of power trot that is flashy to watch but not much fun to ride.  While still a connection issue, this is at least a different variety than the one I am used to dealing with!

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Otto was never super cooperative about stopping to have his picture taken…he just wants to GO!

Otto came to us wearing a Baucher bit.  Many people mistakenly believe that this bit uses poll pressure in its action, but this is not the case. In fact, if you put your fingers under the crown piece and then have a friend apply pressure on the rein, you will feel that there is no poll action.  A Baucher does raise the bit slightly higher against the corners of the lips and holds it steadier in the horse’s mouth; it seems to appeal most to horses which dislike any kind of fussiness in the connection.  In my experience, though, most horses just lean on it, and that is what I felt in Otto. My colleague helped switch out the Baucher for a basic jointed loose ring, which gives him more to chew on and definitely helped to improve the softness of his jaw.

The biggest key with Otto, and horses like him, is that you have to take a leap of faith and give the rein when you want to take. On the days when I would get on Otto with an agenda, and maybe too much tension in my muscles, I could feel him tend to take a bit more feel on me in return.  This is the start of that inevitable cycle of pull and tug—you pull on me, I tug on you.  I remember my mentor from many years ago, Beth Adams, saying, “It takes two to pull.”  So whenever I felt that weight increasing, I pushed the rein forward towards the corners of Otto’s mouth.  Sure, he sometimes accelerated, and then I would circle or leg yield (or both!) and take advantage of the energy to help Otto become better balanced and engaged through the use of my diagonal aids.

Otto was simply so much fun to play with.  We did a million transitions within and between gaits, worked the half pass in trot and canter, and played with his flying changes.  The entire time, I kept thinking, “give”.  The softer I stayed, the softer Otto stayed, with a more correct neck and improved connection.

This lesson was especially helpful to bring forward onto Anna, who is sort of the opposite in terms of her connection issues—she tends to be above the bit and lacks thrust.  On her, finding the right blend of steadiness in the rein (to encourage her to connect) versus give (to encourage her to stretch) is tricky.  Riding Otto reminded me that I can always offer Anna the opportunity to develop better roundness by my becoming a bit more elastic and giving for a few steps.  When I apply this concept, it is nine times out of ten that Anna softens back.  Funny how that is….

Tino

Tino is by far one of our most elegant and well bred school horses, and we are lucky to have such a lovely animal in our program.  It actually hadn’t been my intention to work with him over the break, but when he is out of work, he becomes a bit sassy for the crew to handle, so back to work he went.

Like Otto, Tino has been shown through Third level, but he has much bigger gaits, and these can make him quite challenging to ride correctly.  The sheer power of his movement can throw the rider far out of the saddle and off balance in the trot, and I think it is because of this that most of his riders hesitate to send him correctly forward.  When this happens, Tino gets stuck in a “passage trot”, which is of course horribly incorrect and not good for his muscling and long term comfort levels.

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Tino, though the ears.  You might notice a theme of there not being many people around to help with photos!

Tino has had some excellent schooling in his past, and I wanted to make sure that I did right by this horse.  I took some video of him and sent it off to a trusted friend for some feedback.  She supported my initial instinct, which was that Tino needed to come more freely forward and respond to the rider’s leg aid by reaching forward and under, rather than higher and loftier.  As with all my rides, I started each session with Tino with ten minutes of a marching free walk, and then warmed him up in the trot and canter while encouraging him to stretch through his topline and reach forward into a soft contact, all without dropping his shoulder or getting too heavily onto the forehand.

Tino’s canter is pretty gosh darn amazing.  It is rhythmical and cadenced, and I found that using forward and back adjustments in the counter canter during the warm up phase really helped Tino to loosen his topline, making more correct movement in the trot easier afterwards.

Tino Canter Work Jan 21, 2017

Once he was warmed up, I did a lot—and I mean a lot—of lateral work with him, working on getting a more correct and sharper response to the leg aids.  We did shoulder in, travers, renvers and tons of half pass.  As the strength of his topline returned, we added in more work with adjustable gaits, and I encouraged him to lengthen his stride, then come back to a shorter yet still reaching step.  I also played a lot with his changes; they are easy for him, and as my “consultant” said, “I have yet to meet a horse who was hurt because of doing the flying changes.  If they are easy, they are fun for him.”

I am thrilled with the progress Tino made over the break.  He is a powerful, athletic animal, and thankfully he is generally good natured and doesn’t use any of those qualities against us!  That being said, I think he is a really challenging school horse for riders to figure out.  To get the best work from him (as it is with any horse), the rider must ride forward.  And once Tino is really going forward, you have A L O T of horse underneath you.  That is pretty intimidating– but SO much fun.

A little of Tino at the trot (Jan 21, 2017)

Riding Tino reminded me what it is like to experience the talents of an animal who is simply bred to do their job. The “movements” are easy.  What is important to remember, especially with a horse like Tino, is that when the quality of the gaits decline, we have forgotten the purpose of dressage, which is (simply put), “to enhance the natural gaits of the horse”.  There are certainly moments when the horse is learning a new movement during which they may lose quality, but we need to remember that if this becomes the norm, it is time to take a different tack in our training.

On an even more basic level, riding Tino reminded me that I have to stay back with my upper body.  I have always had a tendency to tip forward, left over from my hunter/jumper days, and on most horses I get away with it.  On Tino, if I tipped forward, I immediately felt off balance due to his big movement.  I also had to make sure to keep my eyes up and forward, for the same reason.  With great power comes great responsibility, grasshopper—in this case, the responsibility to maintain one’s own position.

In a New Year, Horse Sports Look Forward

I started 2017 by attending two big meetings, one which celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA), and one which heralded the start of a new era for the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF), including a re-branding effort which will have us calling the group US Equestrian.  I was struck by some common themes—and common company—between the two meetings, and it has caused me to ponder the long term future of equestrian sport as we begin this New Year.

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In general, equestrian sports are considered “elitist” by those outside of the industry and their continued existence in the Olympics Games remains questionable. Even within the business, there appears to be a dramatic divide between what I will call the “grassroots riders” and the “upper echelon” in terms of needs, motivations for being involved with horses and the ability to reach their personal and performance goals.  At the same time there are those who would argue that there is no gap, that the upper echelon depends upon the grassroots, and that the whole community is structured sort of like a pyramid, only as strong as its base.

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Lee and her friend Lefty at the beach, 2008

I was born with a horse bug.  My earliest memories of wanting to ride come from nursery school.  My parents aren’t “horsey”, and neither were my closest friends growing up.  How often have we heard this kind of story?  That this obsession should come from seemingly nowhere is unexplainable, yet it happens, over and over, these people who have a seemingly insatiable desire, or need, to be connected to horses.  Where that drive takes them is a journey unique to each individual.  Some may stand atop a medal podium.  Some may be fulfilled with a quiet walk down the trail.  Yet wherever we fall on this spectrum, we are all part of the same greater community.

I believe that whether we like it or not, the events which affect the “upper echelons” of equestrian sport affect the rest of us, too, sometimes as a trickle down and sometimes as a mad rushing current.  It is a good thing when we are inspired by a gifted rider’s performance on a talented horse; it is bad when we are left explaining to friends and family why a horse dropped dead at a show, or a big name rider/trainer is suspended for positive drug tests.  But the reverse is true, as well.  If an intrinsically horse loving young person grows up to recognize that there are no longer open spaces to ride, affordable boarding stables, quality instruction and opportunities to reach personal goals,  and they put their horse dreams on a shelf, then we all lose.

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My old horse Mel taught hundreds of children and young adults how to ride.  Here he is with his friend Molly, who enjoyed a special relationship with him. 

The USEF is the umbrella organization which oversees much “sanctioned” equestrian sport in the US.  US Equestrian sets rules, approves licensed officials, offers year end awards programs and more. Yet most people are members only because they compete and membership is required to show.  When they stop competing or take time off, they allow their membership to lapse.  Some of the controversies which have come to the fore front in sanctioned competition, most recently including covert abuse of drug rules, turning a blind eye to questionable training practices, and ever increasing fees, have caused some horse lovers to choose to leave the organization—and competition—behind.  I say horse lovers, because some of these are driven individuals who have put their love for the animal ahead of their love of competition.

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The new US Equestrian logo, similar to the old but without the shield.

For me, this is what it comes down to– love of the horse.  At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether someone shows or not, what discipline they ride, or even how often they ride.  What matters is that they love the horse, and they are committed to giving the horse a humane life, a safe life, one free from pain, suffering or misery, and that they love having that experience.  There is a woman at one barn I go to who doesn’t seem to ever ride.  She grooms, longes, and plays games with her horse on the ground.  It wouldn’t be for me, but that doesn’t matter.  SHE is happy, her HORSE is happy, and everyone wins. We are both horse lovers; we are equestrians.

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Lee and I after completing the GMHA three day 100 mile competitive trail ride. 

New US Equestrian president Murray Kessler sent a letter to all USEF members (of which I am one), which he basically opens with, “I love horses.”  He has been involved at all levels of equestrian sport, from local shows to watching his daughter ride at an Olympic Games.  People who only know him as the father of Reed might dismiss him as another one of those “upper echelon” people; he has been successful in business and clearly has become financially secure to the point where exceptional horses are now a reality.  Despite this, my sense from the US Equestrian meeting is that Mr. Kessler still remembers what it was like to struggle to find the funds to attend a local show, and that he holds a bigger, broader vision of what US Equestrian could be for our industry.  Instead of a pyramid, I think he sees a circle, where the grassroots supports the top but then the top turns around and gives back to the grassroots.  I think that is something quite exciting.

Mr. Kessler has promised that he will serve as an “advocate for our membership at all levels in all breeds and in all disciplines. Every member of the Federation is important and plays a role in our future.”  He has promised to help the organization take a stronger stance on fairness and safety in equestrian sport, going so far as to state that the “purposeful doping of horses cannot and will not be tolerated”.  He vows to increase access and participation in the world of horse showing.  “Competing in equestrian sports has become so expensive that it is prohibitive,” says Kessler in his letter.  It is beyond time for someone in this level of leadership to formally act on these points, for the good of everyone in the industry, not just the competitors.

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A senior equine studies major at the University of New Hampshire gets Coco (leased to UNH by Camp Runoia and a valued horse in the therapeutic riding program) ready for a presentation at the Equine Education Day, spring of 2015.

Because here’s the thing…on some level, the backyard owners need the horse show people.  Horses are a luxury item.  A robust industry means that resources are being produced and consumed, keeping tack retailers, grain suppliers, hay producers, instructors, trainers, boarding stables, veterinarians and farriers in business.  When the number of people consuming these resources dwindles, they become scarcer as suppliers go out of business.  Then the cost goes up, and all horse owners are forced to make difficult choices.

Kessler commented that his research shows that participation at the smaller USEF shows has declined by 40% over the past ten years, while entries at large scale, more costly events have gone up. In my role as the organizer for the University of New Hampshire Horse Trials, I have noticed a similar trend in eventing.  Our competition draws from a more local/regional audience, and we used to be full with close to 200 entries just a few days after opening; now, we are lucky to run 150 and are forced to accept entries post-close.  I hear other organizers of similar competitions say the same thing.  Our sanctioned summer dressage show used to run four rings with a waiting list; now we can barely fill three.

This slow and steady decline in participation is the result of so many different factors, but it is a concerning trend.  Undersubscribed competitions can’t sustain themselves forever, and sooner rather than later they stop running.  This takes the bridge between schooling competition and more prestigious ones away, leaving a gap in our circle that is hard to overcome.

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Riding Thunder in the White Mountains of California.

US Equestrian states as its new vision, “to bring the joy of horse sports to as many people as possible”.  It has created a new “fan” membership; for just $25, fan members can have access to many of the benefits which the organization offers, including access to the new learning center (which has educational videos featuring well known riders and trainers), access to the USEF network, the youth high school lettering program, and more.  The new website lists “start riding” and “learning center” as the first two tabs in their banner, ahead of “compete” and even “join USEF”.  As part of their new membership recruitment efforts, US Equestrian has given a free fan membership to every member of the IHSA and Intercollegiate Dressage Association, and perhaps some other youth organizations as well (I just happen to know those two for sure).  The website has pictures of young people on horses and recreational riders as well as the usual competition photos.  It is, frankly, refreshing.

At the IHSA’s 50th Anniversary Banquet in early January, I was struck by how many generations of equestrians were in attendance. Everyone in the room was connected through just this one organization, and those present were but a small sliver of the total number who could call themselves a current rider, alumni, coach or former coach of the IHSA.  There are close to 10,000 undergraduate members today; over fifty years, that is an enormous community.

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Many members of the University of New Hampshire IHSA team at their final show of the fall 2016 season.

Each and every equestrian needs to be mindful that we as a collective group are completely connected to one another.  Threats to open space access, to collegiate riding programs, to agriculture as a whole, all affect us.   It is crucial that equestrians seek the synergy amongst our different groups. We must work to cultivate a supportive, not competitive, atmosphere within our ranks. Our tack, goals and preferred riding speed may be diverse, but we should all be united by one thing: our love for the horse.

I challenge each of you, no matter how you define yourself as an equestrian, to work to always remember the love of the horse.  Share your love with others.  Because they are out there—those young people with the intrinsic, insatiable need to be with horses.  They are looking for you, for me, for all of us, to help them to fulfill those dreams.

 

 

The Four Seasons of Cold Moon Farm

This past September marked my first full year here at the farm, and overall Mother Nature was kind to me in my rookie year (thank Gaia!).  Each season brings its unique positives and challenges to horse keeping. I have worked on farms for decades but it is certainly a different experience when you are the one making the decisions and doing most of the work.  Now that I have had a full year under my belt here, it is time to pause and reflect on what I have learned so far.

Winter is here in New England.  A few days ago, the farm was buried under 10” of heavy new snow, and now we have huge plow piles, tunnels to gates and waters and temporarily shorted out electrical fencing.  Last winter was relatively mild, which was much appreciated as my learning curve with the new property was fairly steep.  This winter already seems as though it will be more intense; we have had more snow, more ice and more crazy temperature swings before the end of December than I think we went through all season last year.horsesfed

Winter is certainly a challenging time for horse keeping.  All tasks are made harder due to the cold, the snow, the frozen patches…if you have dealt with it, you know.  If, after doing all the work to take care of your horses, you still have the energy to ride, it is still freezing most days, and I personally dislike having to wear layers and fat gloves and heavy boots.  But here is the thing–in New England, our ecosystems NEED winter.  The snow allows underground aquifers to recharge, deciduous trees, grasses and shrubs rest, and we all have a respite from most of the creepy crawlies that plague our horses the rest of the year.  Days are short, temps are low and the footing is questionable, which means that serious training can really only occur if your horse is stabled at an indoor.  One lesson I have learned from the distance riding community is that a little rest for your horse is almost never a bad thing.  No athlete can maintain peak performance year round.  Here in the snowy north, winter is the best time to allow your equine athlete the opportunity to rest and recharge.  After all, nature is doing it, right?

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Winter can also be a time of astounding beauty.  As much as I curse the mounds of snow after a storm, there is something utterly peaceful about being outside with the clean landscape, tree boughs heavy with accumulation, and horses happily rolling, leaping and playing, whiskers and eyelashes frosted. It doesn’t seem to bother them anywhere near as much as it bothers me!  With most riders spending less time in the saddle, winter is also a perfect time to thoughtfully make plans and set goals for the upcoming season.

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A February sunset (2016).

In spite of my efforts to maintain a positive outlook towards the season, winter nearly always outstays its welcome, as far as I am concerned.  I eagerly look forward to any early signs of spring, especially as the days lengthen and winter’s piles lose their resiliency to the strength of a sun which rises ever higher in the sky.  I love the smell of the damp earth as it emerges from beneath the snow’s protective blanket and the sun begins to awaken all of the sleeping entities lying beneath the topsoil.  Seeds sprout, the grass becomes brighter and tree leaves begin to unfurl with reckless abandon.

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Getting legged up April 2016.

Spring means that we can finally give the paddock a good cleaning, knock the cobwebs down from the corners of the barn, and begin to launder blankets and stow the shovels and scrapers.  We trade snow suits for being covered with the shedding hair of our equine friends.  Spring is the time to put all of the plans which we schemed during winter’s lull into action, the time to start to condition our mounts and prepare them for the upcoming active season.

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Marquesa and Lee enjoying spring grass in May 2016.

Songbirds return.  At Cold Moon Farm, there are multiple micro habitats and a lot of edge, and the color and activity of birds just returned from warmer southern climates brings a feeling of lightness and joy.  The grass begins to stabilize and the horses can begin the slow, gradual process of acclimatizing to grazing.

But spring is not all sunshine and buttercups.  Winter clean up can be onerous, from replacing torn sod to fixing broken fencing to removing downed tree limbs.  Dirt paddocks quickly turn into quagmires as snow melt runs off and April’s showers saturate (hopefully within the next few years we will have a proper, improved drainage in the sacrifice area).  Perhaps most annoyingly, fly season officially gets underway in April with the appearance of hordes of blackflies.  And worst of all, ticks are seemingly everywhere, emerging as early as possible. Yet just as you think you can’t take any more of the mud and the bugs and the need to clean up yet another area of the farm, the season changes again.

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The hazy days of early summer.  June 2016.

Summers in New England are short and intense.  There are really only maybe eight to ten weeks of true, full on summer, and we try to make the most of it.  I think I must be part cat, because I just revel in the sun and want to absorb as much of it as possible.  I love to get up early and feel the cool, fresh air in the morning, and I can’t wait to get out and about for the day.  My favorite thing is to ride first thing in the morning, before the humidity builds up, then sip on an iced coffee and teach for the afternoon.

This past summer was super sunny, which I loved for my own purposes, but in reality, it was not the best thing for the ecosystems of the northeast. Between the light snow season and the lack of rain, New England soon found itself in a drought.  I began to hear stories of wells running dry–I soon learned that these were mostly dug wells, which go down 9-12 feet, as opposed to a drilled well like mine, which is usually 200 feet or more and taps into an aquifer. But it was stressful to know that homes around mine were experiencing problems with their wells, so I worried about what I would do if water ran out at the farm.

The drought also meant that the grass went dormant far earlier than usual.  I had to pull the horses off their grass fields in August and switch to feeding hay, almost a month earlier than I had anticipated.  On the plus side, I barely had to mow the lawn and I got away with not having a brushhog yet for the fields out back.  But as the grass began to crisp and the streams and water crossings out back ran completely dry, it was clear that the unusual weather was taking its toll.  Late summer can be a good time to spread lime on your fields, but that requires a heavy rain to help flush it into the soil.  I got lucky in the timing of an application right before one of our only big storms in August. Just as I thought that the fields and the yards and the trees couldn’t possibly take another sun soaked day, deprived of water, the seasons changed again.

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Lime being spread August 2016.

Fall here is simply stunning.  There are many maples on the property, which flamboyantly flash red and orange as the overnight temps cool and days begin to more obviously shorten.  Beech trees and a few oaks mix in as well, offering a later surge of color.  Lower in height, shrubs like sumac and dogwood are also not to be missed.  The trails out back offer a range of color displays, in every direction.  The drier air feels like a relief and this year, the fall brought with it some blessed rain to help begin to reverse the effects of an overly dry summer.  Late summer flowers bloom amidst the falling leaves, lending a competitive sense to the changing seasons.

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The view from between Anna’s ears.  October 2016.
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These two things don’t seem to belong together (October 2016).

Fall on a horse farm means it is time to prepare for winter.  The first order of business was stocking the hay barn to the gills with as many bales as will fit (here, close to 300).  Later in the season, it was time to put away the fixtures from the grass fields, which are closed for winter, then to trim the shrubs around the barn, put away the jumps and rails, and set up the heaters for the outside water.  And of course, autumn is nicknamed “fall” because of the leaves.  I have been lucky so far to either use the mower to mulch them or to allow strong winds to blow them off into the tree line; I certainly don’t relish the idea of hand raking the entire yard!

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Yes, I mowed over these, or at least the ones that didn’t blow away.   October 2016.

As fall winds down, winter begins again.  And the cycle continues.

Each year, the seasons come, the seasons stay, the seasons change.  Each season brings its positives and its negatives, but without that yin/yang balance, it would not be as easy to appreciate the variety for what it is. New England is a dynamic place, and to successfully maintain a healthy place for ourselves and our horses, managers must consider the unique challenges faced during each change of the weather.

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Marquesa shows off her “frosticles”. Winter Solstice, 2016.

So as I trudge outside yet again in my full Yeti suit, I will try to take the good with the challenging, and when it starts to get to the point where I think “I just can’t stand this (insert problem word here; examples could include mud, ticks, snow, ice, wind, torrential rain) anymore” instead I will try to say, “this too shall pass”.

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“You are so lucky to work outside,” they said.

Happy New Year.

December Clinic Weekend

Notes on Sessions with Verne Batchelder and Cindy Canace

Annapony and I enjoyed an educational weekend in mid-December, riding twice with Verne Batchelder and once with Cindy Canace, within four days.  I have had the opportunity to work with both of these talented clinicians before, so I was excited to get some new exercises and feedback as we head into the indoor schooling season.

Verne Batchelder and the “Circle of Submission”

My two sessions with Verne came first, and were held at the lovely Fresh Creek facility in Dover, NH, home to Chesley Brook Stables.  Their insulated indoor was a welcome haven from the unseasonably cold temperature and omnipresent wind, and the GGT footing made Anna feel positively springy.

I hadn’t had the chance to connect with Verne for almost a year, and he was super positive about the progress which Anna has made in that time.  She tends to always be more forward thinking at a new venue, which is helpful, but Verne noticed that she was also moving with a greater degree of acceptance and throughness since the last time he had seen her go.  After I had done a little warm up at the basic gaits, we started to work Anna on what Verne calls “the circle of submission”.

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One of our many “circles of submission”.

The “circle of submission” is a tool which Verne frequently uses to help horses to unlock, to improve connection and to get better acceptance of the outside rein.  Usually, it is done either at the walk or trot, on a smallish (in our case ten meter) circle.  With Anna, I asked for an exaggerated flexion in her neck to the inside, and then asked her to turn her chest towards the middle of the circle, while keeping my outside elbow bent but giving.  I continued to ride her forward and encouraged her to engage the inside hind leg so it reached further over and under.  Once she started to soften her jaw, I increased the straightness by taking more bend into my outside elbow and following with the inside hand.

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When riding the “circle of submission”, one of the important end goals is being able to swivel the horse’s head at the poll, with a response of willing acceptance from the horse. In Anna’s case, the circle allowed her to connect more consistently to the outside rein.  I rode a 10 meter circle, then rode out of the circle in a lovely uphill shoulder in for several strides down the long side, then straightened her and rode forward in the rising trot.  After moving through this sequence, Anna was better able to carry her weight over the topline and actively push into the consistent connection.

The “circle of submission” can be returned to at any point the rider feels they have lost the requisite degree of connection, and/or the ability to swivel the horse at the poll.

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We then moved on to some work with haunches in and half pass. After riding a ten meter circle, I rode down the long side in haunches in.  In both the shoulder in and haunches in work, Verne cautioned against developing too much angle.  Because my goal with Anna next season is to show Third Level, Verne also reminded me that the haunches in is a preparation for the half pass. “Don’t work to perfect the haunches in,” he said, as this movement is not required above Second Level.  “Use it to develop your half pass.”

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We did several sequences of ten meter circle to haunches in on a diagonal line (which is essentially half pass).  I was thrilled to feel Anna fluidly move forward and sideways with a consistent connection and lifted shoulder.  She felt like a “big” horse!

In the canter work, we touched on the flying changes.  On my own, I have been working quite a bit with the counter canter to develop greater strength and straightness.  Anna learned clean changes through her jumping work and tends to throw them in, unasked, during the counter canter.  Verne said that in terms of laying the groundwork for Third Level, it would be appropriate to begin asking for the flying change more frequently. Using the ten meter circle again as preparation, I then rode the short diagonal and asked for a change on the line.  Verne emphasized that the short diagonals were better than long at this point, so that there are fewer strides for the horse to begin to anticipate the change.

Despite the short distance, Anna still anticipated her change, and gave one fairly exuberant effort from right to left, during which she actually kicked the bottom of my left boot!  I think we have some homework to do in terms of “calm acceptance” of this movement.

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I love that this exact moment is caught on film.

We ended the first day’s session by playing with adjustability within the gaits.  Within the trot or the canter, Anna needed to get bigger or get smaller, but always while keeping her nose in—if I allowed the reins to slip, she would slightly poke her nose forward, causing me to lose a degree of the connection and the ability to swivel the poll.

We covered a lot of ground during this session, and I left feeling thrilled by Anna’s performance.  I had felt a degree of connection, thrust and throughness which I have not experienced with her before. Verne was highly complementary of both the progress since last year and the work during our session, and I very much looked forward to day two.

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The next morning was one of the coldest so far of the season, which only meant that Anna was even more energetic, despite her hard work the day before.  We started again working with the “circle of submission”.  Verne added to his description from day one that depending on the horse, the rider can think of riding shoulder in on the circle, or ride it more like a moving turn on the forehand, or even a leg yield out of the haunches.  He emphasized, again, that no matter how you approach the “circle of submission”, its purpose is to get the hind end of the horse active and free, to get the inside hind leg under the horse’s body, and to take the horse’s neck out of the cycle of resistance.

From here, we moved onto work with haunches in and half pass in the trot.  Verne cautioned again against creating too much angle in the haunches in, which causes the horse to lose their forward intention.  In the half pass, Verne reminded me to keep a bent elbow on the outside, and to allow Anna’s shoulders to move ahead of the diagonal line first, and then to put the haunches in on the diagonal.

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Schooling haunches in.

Allowing the shoulders to come out ahead of the line was a new idea for me, and I found that it helped Anna to say more up into the outside rein during the half pass.  By focusing first on the shoulders and then adding the haunches in, the half pass became even more fluid and effortless. We have a lot of work to do to strengthen and improve her reach and carrying power, but we definitely have some new tools to use to develop the movement this winter.

In the canter work, we worked on a twenty meter circle and played with the idea of increasing pressure, then backing off. Because horses naturally tend to carry their haunches to the inside of the circle, we allowed Anna to start this way, while simultaneously increasing the activity in her hind end and increasing the weight in my outside elbow.  I then straightened Anna’s body for a few strides, allowing her to increase the collection, then softened and let the haunches slide back in.  The idea here is to just touch on the increased collection without asking for it for too many strides in a row.

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I just love this moment in the canter!

Overall, I was so excited and encouraged by the work Anna offered during our time working with Verne.  I came away with new tools to play with this winter, and Anna has shown me how much more she is capable of doing in this work.  On to Third Level we go!

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Thanks to Cayden for coming with us on Day 1 and taking all of these great photos!

Cindy Canace:  “Be a Better Backpack”

After our two days with Verne, Anna had a much needed Sunday off, giving me the opportunity to audit several sessions with USEF “S” judge and USDF Gold Medalist Cindy Canace.  Cindy came up from New Jersey to spend two days working with riders at the University of New Hampshire Equine Program.  Anna and I had worked with Cindy back in June, and we had a session scheduled again for Monday.

Watching Cindy work with our riders allowed me to observe certain themes to her teaching.  She is incredibly detail oriented, and works hard to help riders to both understand important concepts and to feel the horse underneath them.  Cindy expects the rider to keep their hands together and in front of their body, allowing the horse to reach to the bit to seek contact.  She also works to correct posture and alignment issues in the rider which impact the horse.  One of my favorite quotes of the day was that the riders needs to “be a better back pack”, in reference to the fact that our horses must essentially relearn to balance under our weight.  It is incumbent upon us to try to make that burden as easy to bear as possible.

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Cindy works with two of my students, riding UNH’s horses Morocco and Ticco.  Photo from the UNH Equine Program Facebook Page

Cindy has judged me on Anna several times in competition, in addition to working with us this summer, so she has a decent idea of her strengths and weaknesses.  In our Monday session, Cindy wanted to work on helping Anna to lift more in her shoulders and truly elevate her poll.  The exercises we did were perhaps not the most interesting for the auditors, but Cindy’s laser beam focus on excellence in the basics helped Anna to show some good progress.

Cindy first had me dramatically slow down Anna’s walk, making each step extremely deliberate, by slowing down my seat while keeping a following, elastic elbow.  She then had me execute a series of walk to halt transitions.  In each downward transition I made sure to keep my leg on, and then I released Anna from the halt by pressing with the seat bones and softening the leg and hand.  Cindy only allowed us to take two walk steps before I asked Anna to halt again.  We remained in the halt, with my leg on, until Anna began to soften in the jaw and raised her shoulders.  Cindy encouraged me to give Anna a gentle tap on the shoulder with my dressage wand to get a better response to my request for elevation or if she was inattentive.

From this work, we moved into a turn on the forehand.  Just as in the earlier exercise, Anna was allowed to take two walk steps and then I asked her to halt, holding it as before.  Cindy was particular that to initiate the turn, I needed to press with the calf muscle, not my spur, and once Anna began moving, I needed to keep the march of my seat in a walking rhythm to follow.  Cindy reminded me that even though we are emphasizing the responsiveness of the horse to the inside leg in this exercise, my outside leg and seat bone are also important and must remain active.  Ideally, in the turn on the forehand, it should take four steps to get the horse facing the opposite direction.

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Cindy worked this summer with my colleague Liz Johnson, here riding Santa Fe ISF.  Liz coordinated Cindy’s whirlwind visit to the frigid north for all of us.  Thank you Liz!

After working on the turn on the forehand, we did a few turns on the haunches, which Anna executed with a more elevated shoulder than before. I also noticed that she had developed a degree of “lipstick”, one of the visual indicators that the horse has begun to soften the jaw.  I hope the auditors saw that Anna had become softer in the jaw as the result of the work we had done to improve responsiveness in the hind end and lift in the shoulder, and not because we had done anything at all to manipulate or pull her into a position.

We then moved on to work in the trot and canter, and Cindy helped me work with the position of my left leg.  Due to now chronic knee pain, I have a great deal of trouble keeping my left leg fully internally rotated, with the knee and toe pointing forward.  Instead, my toe tends to angle out, and I have a difficult time keeping my left spur off Anna’s side without hurting my knee.  After so many months of knee pain, I have really developed some compensatory behaviors with the left leg, especially when I am tracking left and need to use the inside leg to position Anna correctly.  Cindy had me try bringing my left heel down and forward, allowing my left knee to rotate off the saddle slightly.  She then had me rotate my shoulders slightly toward the right in order to engage my outside hip.  This positioning of course felt somewhat unnatural but it did allow me to keep Anna correctly bent without my spur ending up stuck on her side.

Cindy had me do many transitions, especially walk-trot-walk and trot-halt-trot.  In each transition, Anna needed to stay up in the shoulder.  Cindy had me ride a slight step of leg yield out in each transition to help engage the inside hind and keep Anna into the outside rein (a little bit of a similar concept to the “circle of submission” discussed above).

Back to the Laboratory

After our super educational weekend, I have plenty of new material to work with for the next several months in the indoor.  I appreciate having fresh eyes on our progress and to come away with ever increasing clarity as to next steps.  Now we go “back to the lab” to experiment with our new exercises and tools.  Stay tuned for further developments….

Relationship

Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday, I spent some time catching up on a ton of fellow blogger’s posts.  I am now the new owner of an iPad, and with shorter, colder days, curling up on the couch to catch up on other’s thoughts and activities is a welcome pasttime. One blog I follow is called “Green to 100” and it chronicles a newish rider on the quest to complete a 100 mile endurance ride.   As a rookie to the sport of distance riding myself, I find I can often relate to her stories.  But another theme which is present throughout her blogs is that of relationship, specifically with her horse.  She seeks to be a leader that her horse wants to follow, rather than to dictate to her horse about what is going to happen.  Approaching her relationship with her horse in this manner means that certain things take longer.  But it is clear that the reward of arriving where she wants to go, united as a team with her horse, is more important than getting there fast.  Quality is more important than quantity.

Reading a whole series of her blogs in a row gave me the opportunity to reflect on the nature of the horse/human relationship on a number of levels, but especially in regards to the bond I share with each of my own horses.

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Annapony, June 2015

In preparation for the winter season, Annapony has relocated to the university, which has an indoor, so that she can remain in consistent work.  I have big goals for her next season, which will require us to use the winter to train and to build strength and suppleness. She is happy enough there, and well cared for.  But I was really quite reluctant to bring her back, and kept delaying her departure from Cold Moon Farm.  It wasn’t hard for me to realize that I simply wanted her to be at home with me and with my other horses.  I genuinely enjoy being the main caretaker for my horses.  I know them so intimately that it is easy to notice when something is off.  By bringing Anna to another facility and putting her day to day care in someone else’s hands, it feels almost like a wedge is driven into our relationship.  That isn’t entirely true but I still resent the intrusion.

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Supervising Anna eating breakfast this spring.

Anna is a calm horse, most of the time. She seems to enjoy human attention (especially if there is food involved) but also likes other horses.  Her rank in the herd is towards the top but her style of leadership seems to be more threat than attack.  Anna is pretty tolerant; nervous horses on trail have run right into her hindquarters and she has never so much as flicked an ear.  That being said, I find the best approach with Anna when tackling a new skill or question is to ask, then wait a moment.  If I am too hasty, and try to force her…she resists, sometimes with great vigor.  If I give her a chance to look and understand, then she usually will comply.

The other night, I took Anna for a hack onto the cross country course right as the sun was setting.  We have already had some snow here in New Hampshire, with some mild melting, leaving the ground a hodge podge of bare spots mixed with snow covered rocks, footprints and other hard to discern anomalies.  The air was cooling off and a fairly steady breeze had picked up.  Overall, conditions were not ideal for a relaxed hack, but I was determined to get out of the ring after several days of solid arena work.  In the woods, the light was dim and features unclear, yet Anna remained mostly calm and confident.  We completed a meandering loop around the course and returned to the main facility along the edge of the reservoir, past the observatory and down a trail which was now nearly completely obscured in the fading light of day.  When there is no artificial light, it is pretty amazing how much you can still see, once your eyes adjust.  A Canada goose broke the stillness with a series of loud honks, but even this didn’t cause Anna to tense or become unsettled.  It was so calming and soothing to be riding in the near darkness, and to have nearly complete trust that my horse would keep me safe.

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A different hack. But those are Anna’s ears. From Fall 2016 at Cold Moon.

While Anna is back at school, Lee and Marquesa have remained behind at Cold Moon Farm, now living side by side instead of sharing a paddock.  Lee is so submissive to Marquesa that it can make feeding complicated, so having them separated makes management much easier.

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Marquesa and Lee, out together for the first time this May.

I wasn’t entirely sure how the transition was going to go, and overall, it was far less eventful than it was bringing everyone home this spring.

Lee and I have had a long history together—twelve years, to be exact.  I think she likes me as well as she likes any human, but she has never been a cuddly horse; she isn’t going to nicker to you (unless you are carrying her grain), and during her long residence at UNH she was known to intimidate many an inexperienced crew member with her grumpy expressions.  Lee is aloof.  But she is also an absolute bottom dweller on the equine hierarchy, and I think a lot of her behavior is only posturing to try to convince you to just go away and leave her be. Lee isn’t going to come over to you in the field; but she is unlikely to run away from you, either.  If you so much as raise your voice at her, she will recoil in horror.  Lee is insecure.

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Snack break at the Warren Tessier 20 mile ride, October, 2016.  Photo credit to Robin!

When Lee and I moved to Cold Moon Farm last September, she spent nine months with no other companion save me and the goats which live next door.  During that time, she really impressed me with her steadiness and composure.  This year, Lee overwhelmed me with her grit and attitude on the GMHA three day 100 mile ride.  But if I think back, there are SO many occasions on which Lee has stepped up to a challenge, and most of the time I think our relationship with each other has been one of mutual respect.

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Lee heading home after 90 miles; GMHA Three Day 100 mile CTR, Fall 2016 (photo courtesy of Spectrum Photography)

One of the best examples of this happened two winters ago, during Lee’s last season at UNH.  I had taken to including at least one day of longeing per week into her routine, often incorporating work over cavaletti, just to break things up and give her a new mental challenge.  At the end of a session, I usually hopped on bareback to cool her out.  One night, we were alone in the indoor working on the longe.  Each session followed a similar pattern, and Lee started to head out in the new direction without much prompting from me.  I was struck by an inspiration, and so instead of stopping her, I just unclipped her longe line.  For the next ten minutes or so, I longed Lee at the walk, trot and canter, all without the aid of a longe line.  In the indoor.  She could have gone anywhere in the ring she wanted, but instead she chose to stay with me and follow my direction on a twenty meter circle.  It was pretty amazing.

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Lee looking dressage-y at the beach in 2008.

Our newest horse, Marquesa, is different from either Anna or Lee.  For eighteen years, she has been a horse which was used in lessons that I and others taught at UNH.  I relied on her to give confidence to new cross country riders, to assist the timid jumpers, and to teach experienced riders that they still had a thing or two to learn about how ride on the flat.  She certainly respected me as the authority figure in the ring, but like many school horses I think she had become somewhat guarded about who she chose to really interact with.

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Cold Moon Farm Fall 2016 intern Nikki with Marquesa.

Marquesa is a dominant horse. She has a highly developed sense of fairness, meaning if you try to use force to correct her, she just stubbornly refuses to comply.  She can be pushy, and I think being used too many times for “equine facilitated learning sessions” has made her fairly intolerant of humans trying to use their body language to coerce her into doing their will.   However, she appreciates clear direction and boundaries, and when you treat her with kindness and fairness, she is quite sweet.  When she starts to get pushy, if you can lower your energy instead of getting upset, and then explain what you want her to do, she will usually be willing to go along with you.  Now that she is on her own side of the fence line, I find that she is more willing to interact with me directly.  Before, she was mostly concerned with continuing to exert her dominance over Lee.  Her relationship with the other horse was most important; I was just in the way.

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Marquesa keeps a close eye on her herd. 

Marquesa is still figuring out her own way in terms of post lesson horse life.  She still has several different riders, but not more than three at a time, and has been doing a mix of ring work and trail riding.  This fall, my friend Linsey took Marquesa out for a ride with me and Lee.  There are several stream crossings out on the trails, which the horses are used to.  After a recent period of heavy rain, though, one of the crossings was unexpectedly quite a bit deeper than usual.  The water came right up to Marquesa’s belly, and drenched her rider’s feet.  Marquesa froze for a moment, perhaps shocked by the sudden depth of water, but then she just kept right on going.  To get home, we had to make the same crossing going the other way, and I wasn’t sure if she would be willing to do it again.  I needn’t have worried.  She plunged right in and stormed across, as if to say, “I got this”.  Not too shabby for a horse who has lived in one place for eighteen years and has mostly worked in the ring. I think perhaps that she is starting to sort out that life here is okay.

Having two horses at home is hard in terms of relationship.  Despite centuries of domestication, horses are hard wired to want to be with other horses.  Solo horses feel vulnerable and show their distress through an array of behaviors.  Since Anna’s departure for the winter, I have continued taking Lee out for solo rides, and going for duo rides whenever someone else is available to ride Marquesa.  I haven’t quite gotten brave enough to pony one off the other just yet.

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Did someone say snacks?

This puts all of our relationships to a real test.  I can tell that Lee feels a little torn about who she should be listening to—me or Marquesa.  Marquesa screams at the top of her lungs when I take Lee away; she actually starts when I am just grooming Lee, something I do in the paddock to minimize the length of the separation.  On the one hand, I want to be able to work with each horse independently.  On the other, I respect the genetics which have kept horses as a species alive for generations.  Horsemen must work with these instincts, not against them. For her part, Lee usually walks out quietly and almost never answers Marquesa’s calls.  But as soon as we turn for home, Lee starts to bounce and jig.  Once Marquesa is in sight, she settles down.  It is like she is trying really hard to be good, but can’t quite pull it off all the time.

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Lee trying really hard to be good while I fumble with my new iPhone for a photo.  December 2016.

Listening to Marquesa scream and dealing with Lee’s jigging can try my patience.  But we are in the winding down time of the season.  Nature in New England prescribes a period of rest or hibernation for most species, a time when aquifers refill, deciduous trees go dormant, and soils take a break from producing.  The equine community similarly slows down, with fewer activities, reduced travel and less intense work outs.  There is nothing to get ready for and nowhere to go.  It is the perfect time to focus on relationship; to reconnect with what makes each horse unique and to enjoy the feeling of mutual respect which can be developed by responding to each horse as an individual.