A Different Kind of Obsession

I haven’t been writing lately because I’ve been obsessed with something completely different from horses; pregnancy. Pregnancy. Something every mom is intimately familiar with and unexplainable to those uninitiated. Everyday is a new adventure so it’s not like I know what I’m talking about either. I do know that it’s completely different than what I expected. Since I bought Savy a little over 3 years ago, she’s been my number one priority. I was always thinking about her, obsessing over training, and day dreaming about the perfect centerline at our next show.  I completely expected to continue as normal once I got pregnant, until I was too large to physically ride anymore.

That has not been the case. Almost immediately the morning sickness and fatigue of the first trimester put a screeching halt to any riding. Since I found out I was pregnant I’ve ridden maybe 10 times in almost 4 months. It’s crazy! What’s surprising is that we’ve actually made progress. It seems that each time we work together, either on the ground or in the saddle, our work is more potent. When I ride next, it’s as if we just finished our last ride, even if it was two weeks earlier. What’s even better is Savy’s overall acceptance of the aids has improved dramatically.  She has always chomped on the bit, or tried to evade the bit. Not so much anymore. A few ground driving sessions improved something we’ve been working on for 3 years!

Since my rides haven’t been long, or taxing, I’ve been focusing completely on the basics. Inside leg to outside rein. Bending through the body and not just the neck. Rewarding for each little try on Savy’s part. Taking frequent walk breaks. Keeping the back lifted during the trot to canter transition. She felt so solid, soft and on my aids during our last ride, that I decided to try out some more difficult stuff. Leg yields centerline to B & E, easy. Even tempo, stayed on the outside rein, beautiful cross over. Trot lengthening, easy. Improved the connection dramatically actually. I could have taken that ride all the way down centerline at a rated show!  If we were working regularly with a trainer, it’d be time to up the ante and start working on harder stuff.

If it seems I am really excited and over celebrating just one ride – I am. Even if it was great, everyone knows that with horses it’s one step forward two steps back.  But my riding days, as sporadic as they are already, are numbered. I’m going to hold onto this one great ride. We had a cold snap recently with lots of snow and I barely made it out to the barn, but when I am there Savy has a wild look in her eyes.  As much as I miss her, and riding, I’m happy that she gets this break to be just a horse. She has no pressure, no expectations, and as a result she seems to like our time together even more.


How Does a Horse Learn Respect?

fearlessThe simple answer? I don’t know.  There is no simple answer, at least not for me and Savy.  In my last blog I mention that since the surgery, Savy had been more relaxed and happy than ever before.  She was a dream to ride – steady in the contact and swinging through her nicely lifted back.  Then I asked for lateral work, and it all fell apart.  All of the tension, attitude and anger was back.  Queue mutual temper tantrums and meltdowns.  After a week of terrible rides, and a meltdown (on my part) which ended in me yelling at Savy for pooping too much (it was ridiculous, like 6 times in 10 minutes, but still no excuse), I took a step back.  I had to.  After so many of these type of relapses, I can’t handle it anymore.

I took a week off and just thought about Savy, training, and the possible physical reasons why she might be acting this way. I also realized that Savy either ignored me, or grossly over-reacted to my aids.  As an example, if I would ask her for a walk to trot transition, she would ignore my leg aids until I had to use the whip, at which point she would act completely offended, like I was abusing her.  Finally I realized Savy didn’t understand the difference between respect and fear.  After sharing my realization with my trainer, she suggest ground work.

Our first ground work lesson was simple and astounding.  It was obvious from the beginning that I didn’t understand respect either.  We spent the hour learning about personal space, and walking, backing and stopping with attention.  By our second ground work lesson, Savy had figured out what I wanted and had gone back to zoning out.  Just that fast.  She’s too smart.  So we had to turn up the difficulty, we ran and stopped.  We learned turn on the forehand and turn on the haunches.  Savy still gets opinionated, but it’s so much easier to deal with her emotions from the ground.

Savy has always been weaker and more tense on her left side (she’s right handed), but now she’s very tense on her right side.  I had her massaged and adjusted by the chiropractor. Poor girl is a mess.  She was out just about everywhere, except her left hind, ironically.  She even had a rib out.  The chiro said a lot of times the surgery itself can cause a lot of problems, since they are lifted by their legs and laid on their backs.

Savy had 48 hours off after her adjustment, and the plan is to start back with an easy ride of walk trot.  The chiro is coming back in two weeks and the goal between now and then is to strengthen and lengthen Savy’s right stifle. I plan on spending as much time out of the ring as possible, my goal is to do trot sets on the old racing track, and in a week or so start back on the ground work.

Alfredo Hernandez Clinic – January 2015

Alfredo Clinic Jan 2015

The new year rang cold and blistery, but exciting with the promise of a spicy Alfredo Hernandez clinic.  Alfredo flew in to temps in the mid-twenties, and tried his best to stay positive about it.  He was entertaining as always, but I only audited for 4 hours.  I was hoping to ride, but due to Savy’s injury (a bone deep gash on her leg that amazingly didn’t cut anything important) I didn’t feel prepared, so Nicole rode her.

The worked on flying changes, and specifically an exercise to help with being late behind.  He had Nicole ride on a 15 meter circle, alternating between haunches in and haunches out at the trot.  Once she mastered that (which took about 5 minutes), he had her do it at the canter, changing leads with the haunches.  It forced her changes to be clean.  10 minutes later she figured that out.  After that they worked on the piaffe with the bamboo, which she also figured out immediately, he stopped and called it a day.  He said there was no point to push it, since she did what he was trying to get her to do.

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Did I mention Savy is incredibly smart and athletic?  That doesn’t mean she’s easy – many of her “clean” changes included a gigantic buck in the middle, but hey.  She’s 5 doing changes.  Give her a break.  I mentioned the attitude to Alfredo and he said it’s what makes her good.  So I’m making peace with bucking during every ride.  It’s just who she is.

Here a few points from my brief auditing time:

  • No petting during work.  The reward is walking.  So if they do something right, walk and reward.
  • If the horse is late behind in the change, ask with the haunches first instead of the shoulder.  Yes, this is not technically proper.  But it’s a learning exercise for the horse, not the way you’d ride in the test.
  • Breaks are the most important part of work
  • Strength is build by repetition, not continuous work – think reps at the gym, you don’t do squats for 45 minutes straight
  • Make the horse flexible before straight.  Alfredo was a fan of working constantly on a 15 meter circle.  15 meters because he didn’t want the horse to touch the arena wall.  This forced the horse and rider to stay on the outside rein.  For the last month, all of my lesson have been entirely on a 15 meter circle.  It appears Nicole is using a new tactic to get me to bend; muscle memory.  She’s completely by passing my mind and drilling the feeling into my muscles.  It’s actually working.

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Luckily Alfredo is coming back in June and July, and hopefully I’ll be riding in those clinics.  Things are coming along well (mostly) in our training.  We’ve been working hard on improving my riding the canter.  Does that make sense?  Savy has a nice canter, I have to learn how to ride it.  I’m learning what doesn’t work (pinching thighs), but I’m still figuring out using leg without pinching.  I get a nice canter for a few strides, and then I lose it and Savy breaks.  This is how the whole dressage thing works, nice moments built on nice moments until one day it’s all nice and you can move on to perfecting something else.  The all nice phase lasts about one week.

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Turkey Trot Schooling Show


I went to the Turkey Trot (a local schooling show) with one objective in mind, schooling in the show ring. Prior to our last show, I went down centerline practically paralyzed with nerves.  My only real goal was to get through the movements; halt at X, don’t go off course, canter when I’m supposed to and pick up the correct lead, and ride reasonably accurate circles.  Savy quickly learned she didn’t have to work hard in the show ring, and I became a passenger.

So for this schooling show, I put no pressure on myself to score well and had no expectations of being high in the ribbons. There were no more than 6 riders in each class so I mentally prepared myself for a pink or green ribbon, and fireworks in the arena.  I am extremely competitive, so this was difficult for me.  Generally anytime I change the status quo with Savy I get lots of bucks and pinned ears.  Surprisingly she didn’t buck at the show, but there was a lot of ear pinning at the canter.

The canter. My nemesis.  I have never been awesome at riding the canter.  It wasn’t so bad in hunters because we just kind of perched there anyway, but I still had trouble with my leads.  Now that I understand bending, I get my lead each time just fine, but I have a tremendously hard time sitting the canter and following the movement.  It doesn’t help that Savy’s canter used to be really difficult to sit at all. Used to being the key phrasing.  Her canter has come a long way and there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to ride it.

My problem is I tense. I tense because Savy likes to be behind my leg, especially in the canter, and to get her forward I squeeze.  Unfortunately I squeeze with every muscle in my body.  This, of course, has the exact opposite affect and makes Savy very unhappy.  I am learning to relax my body and move my hips with the movement.  If Savy isn’t forward, she gets a boot with the leg.  She keeps getting boots until she’s forward.  We’ve make tremendous improvement in only one week.

I still had some issues with the canter in the test, but I consciously attempted to relax. And while she wasn’t as forward as I would have liked, I didn’t stop pushing for it.  Luckily I have videos of my ride and I am starting to see glimpses of the horse and rider I want us to become.

Surprisingly we received a First and Second place in Training 2 & 3 respectively.


Conquering Fear

fearWhile reading Jillian Michael’s book Unlimited I came across an anecdote that reminded me very much of my experience with conquering fear in the saddle.

“One day I was sparring with my martial arts instructor on what we called “fight night”. I was basically a beginner, maybe a blue belt, and I figured he was not really going to hit me hard.  It was just practice training.  After all, I was a novice and a kid going through a tough time – right? Wrong.

Suddenly I found myself in a corner getting the crap kicked out of me.  Literally one sidekick after another was being delivered right into my stomach.  With the wind knocked out of me, I immediately curled into a ball, took cover, and started crying.  To my amazement, he did not stop kicking me. Instead he said, “Life is not going to stop knocking the wind out of you. You can pull it together and fight your way out of that corner, or I can break your ribs”.  And then he delivered another swift blow to my solar plexus.  I promise you this is no exaggeration.

But in that moment I realized that I couldn’t allow fear to immobilize me.  I had to use it as motivation to fight back – and I did.  That night I fought my way out of the corner, and I have been doing it ever since.”

Okay so it doesn’t really have anything to do with horses, but the moral of the story is relatable.  I bought Savy while I was recovering from wisdom tooth surgery with complications.  I felt weak and sick for a long time, and I hadn’t been in the saddle consistently for years.  Savy had only been backed a few times when I bought her so she was green as spring grass.  Due to my timid-ness, she realized pretty quickly that she could easily intimidate me.  Savy decided she didn’t want to be ridden past the gate.  She wanted to go out the gate to her stall.  Every time we rounded a corner away from the gate, even if it was at the other end of the arena, she would bulk and act like she was going to buck.  It terrified me.  I’m not sure how many lessons Megan and I went through with her trying to get us to round that corner.  Savy would bulk, pin her ears back and I’d curl into fetal position.  In the saddle.

Courage quoteMegan kept telling me to sit back but it was hard!  Sitting up straight while Savy misbehaved made me feel so exposed.  But I was lucky that I had someone there to push me through my fear, and to help me realize that ridding through the situation instead of hiding from it was the only way we’d get better.  If it wasn’t for Megan screaming sit up, sit up, I don’t know that I would have ever been able to ride my horse.  And it’s a really good thing Megan taught me how to ride through Savy’s sassy episodes since they continued in one form or another for a year.  When she bucks now I barely register it.

The only way to face a scary situation, whether in life or in the saddle, is with your shoulders back and head up.

The First (unofficial) Weekend of Spring

LuxFriday afternoon found me bouncing in my desk chair, itching to get outside to enjoy the warm weather.  Frankly, I think the first warm day after winter, and especially after winters like these, should be holidays.   The snow had melted and it was nice enough to let Savy hand-graze.  I could not wait to give Savy her first taste of grass in months.  After munching some seriously dry dead grass, I decided to ride bareback with just a halter.  It went surprisingly well.  I only walked because she’d already had a training ride with Nicole that day, but she got “on the bit” in her halter and we did haunches in and shoulder in with no problems.

Then I had a bright idea.  Lets run around together in the outdoor (on foot – not bareback).  I was feeling playful and I pictured us frolicking and playing our own horse/human version of tag.  Savy did not think this was fun.  I’m pretty sure she thought I’d lost my mind and was chasing her around the arena for no reason.  That girl can run!  And she did some beautiful flying changes but once I realized we weren’t playing anymore I tried to calm her down.  She came out of the arena prancing, with her head and tail straight up in the air and snorting so much I could see the red in her nose.  And then I remembered she’s a 4 turning 5 year old Arabian mare.  It’s safe to say we won’t be playing that game again.

Saturday was perfect.  Perfect.  We rode in the outdoor with our friends Liz (human) and Maxi (horse), and then took a little hack around the farm.  Savy has grown up so much over the winter!  She didn’t act nervous or spooky outside at all…not even when we rode past the place where the cats tried to kill her last year.  Liz and I are going to try and do Trail Ride Saturdays when the weather is nice 🙂

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this on the blog before, but I work Sunday mornings at the farm.  I feed, turn out, clean stalls, feed again, bring some in and take others out.  It’s a lot of work but I love it.  There’s nothing more satisfying than leaving the barn knowing all the stalls are clean, the horses have fresh water, and that they have full belly’s.

It’s weekends like this that make all the work and frozen toes of winter worth it.

horses make life better