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‘Tis the season…

Oh la la!  Traveling during the month of December?  This close to Christmas, colleges finishing their terms, children hopped up on sugarplums, amateurs abounding in the airport… what. was. I. thinking?

I have been saying since Thanksgiving that this month is a wash.  So many things pull our attention away from the work that we intend to do with our horses, that it seems futile to fight against the inevitable interruption to our routine.  Best laid plans are simply that and we end up with fresh horses and feelings of being left behind the work we wanted to accomplish.

When I resided in snow-country, there were months until our horses needed to be fit and sound for a competition, but now, living in the southern climes where winter never comes, now is our training time.  A top-notch clinician is visiting this weekend and our next schooling of cross-country falls on the first weekend in January.  Fasten your breast-collars people.

So what is the strategy for the holiday season when short days, cold mornings and countless social obligations disrupt the proper progression of our training?  Well, my advice is to give in.

Now, to be clear, I am not saying give up.  I am saying that this is the reality of our lives.  Training our horses and ourselves does not exist in a vacuum. We have children, jobs, homes, other horses, visiting relatives, trips, aging parents… the list goes on.  At this time of year, when daylight betrays us, we must be kind to the limitations placed upon us and our horses.  To fight it adds stress and pressure that earns us injuries and heartache.

My advice (though I know that the best advice is not given) is to just relax into the ebb and flow of the holidays.  Get to your riding as much as you can without serious inconvenience.  The rides may be shorter, there may be more lunging, trail rides might serves as the only ride to accommodate cousin so-and-so… that is okay.  Your horse will recover from any niggling soreness or injury and so will you.  And you will both arrive on the other side of the holidays a bit heavier, a bit sounder, but ready and fresh to your work.

Be aware of the fresh horse who has had extra days off and the human who has not had their mind on riding for a few days.  You both have to ease back in and expect less.  Fine. No problem.  The training you did before the turkey arrived has not disappeared, it’s just buried.  Be gentle in shaking off the dust or rust or trust.  Things will all come back.  In the horse, this looks like bucking, kicking and squealing when you lunge or round-pen them.  It’s okay, loads of transitions will help your cause and calm your horse.  Same to you when you get on.  Go slow, be methodical.

When you get to January without the guilt of training the way you THINK you should train, you’ll feel better, lighter and ready.  That is something that I want for Christmas, so why not give it to ourselves?

We tested those new jumps… They Work!!

Santa and his elves delivered an early Christmas present to my arena last weekend… I got new jumps!  Wooohoo!  Thank you to all my wonderful clients who pitched in to make this happen.  They are fabulous!

I tested them out today with Cash.  Yep, they work.  Yay!

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And, Miss Tavia had a chance to get on our little filly today.  They both did a great job!

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To ‘Bit Up’ or Not?

I am often asked about changing a horse’s bit or adding a martingale or a drop noseband.  Recently I had a lengthy conversation with one of my students about the rhyme and reason for choosing anything and realized that this is probably a topic that most amateurs don’t have a lot of experience with.  They often have one horse and the limited scope of choosing equipment for that horse.

So, when do we change the bit or add equipment?  My answer to her, very simply, was only if it enhances, in a natural way, the riders’ correct aids.

Assuming the horse has had a fair and proper start with a mild bit and can walk-trot-canter-halt in a basic snaffle, we can consider a new bit as the horse advances his/her career.  If they are proficient at jumping and moving up the levels, but have a tendency to get excited and blow through the rider’s aids on the approach to a fence, it might be time for an adjustment.  At this stage, you should know how your horse evades the aids and how they are submissive.  I have found that very few horses are truly hard-mouthed, but most have weak hind-ends to rock back onto, so that is your work for all eternity.

If you have a horse that gets heavier and heavier in it’s gallop, you will want something that helps you elevate the horse’s front end.  If you have a horse that is built uphill and has a tendency to pop up in front, you might want something with leverage and/or a running martingale.  But please be clear about the action you want to create.  There is no substitute for correct training.  Your best bet is to discuss with your trainer to come up with the best solution, keeping in mind that less is more.

I have seen many horses in troubles with their rider due to an incorrect combination of equipment.  One of the best examples

USEA Equipment Appendix
Part of the USEF Eventing Rulebook:  Appendix 4

was at my ICP Assessment in South Carolina.  I was SUPER nervous about my assessment and had arrived a full day in advance to watch other instructors, which only served to make me more anxious.  When it came time to teach my cross-country lesson, I was paired with a Level III Instructor who competed at Advanced.  She came out in a Cheltenham Gag bit with two reins, a running martingale and spurs three inches long.  The whole picture was one of driving and skiing. I politely inquired about this set-up, but was much too timid to tell this upper level rider that her rig was bonkers.

We began the lesson and the horse was running away with her everywhere we went.  I asked her to jump a line:  skinny, three strides to an upright log under a tree. I described how I wanted her to come off the turn, rebalance the horse with her outside rein to create a bouncy, collected canter.  Off she went at a gallop, came around the turn like she was at Louisville and the horse leaped in and leaped out… one stride between fences spaced 48 feet apart.  It was NOT good.

At this stage my assessor stepped in to reset the balance between the novice instructor (me) and the experienced rider/instructor (her).  I had not been assertive enough and she  ‘should f*&^ing know better!”  Needless to say, it did nothing for our rapport, but she took off her spurs and dropped the lower rein on the gag, effectively making it a snaffle.  We finished the lesson with me demonstrating the necessary words to pass my exam and her rolling her eyes at every instruction.  But, it was a perfect lesson for me… more is not more when it comes to equipment, and as the instructor, I better have a clear idea of what I’m after and how each piece of equipment affects that outcome.

Bottom line, if it causes the horse to drop behind the bit, shorten the neck, hollow the back, lower the front end or alter their soft, natural way of going, it is not the right solution.  And, 9 times out of 10, more training is the answer.

Good luck out there!

Yes, but how does it feel?

If you are one of my students, you know that I often ask you to describe what you felt during a movement or series of exercises.  To new students, this is confounding.  Even as they get accustomed, my students stop and stare blankly off into the distance before attempting to find some words.  Many riders come to a lesson to be told what to do and when to do it and how much to do it.  And that certainly falls into my job description.  However, just because you could follow directions, doesn’t mean that you grasped any concepts or have any idea how you’ll recreate it on your own.

As an instructor, I don’t believe that my job is complete (for the day, week, month, lifetime) until you can do the work on your own.  And, the only way to internalize the information is to focus on the feel.  Experiences teach, not my words.  I am there to create opportunities and situations that cause you and your horse to feel something new and improved, but I won’t always be there.  Whether you’re riding alone at home or headed into the show ring where I can’t remind you to add leg or sit up, there will come a time when you have to recreate the good feeling work on your own.

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I am often far behind in my reading.  Something about the combination of single mother, business owner, riding instructor, horse trainer, chef, nurse and housekeeper keeps me from that stack of horse magazines and books.  So, I just read the October issue of USDF Connection.  There is a great column named “Training Classic” which features a previously published article.  In the October issue, Hilda Gurney is the author of the article titled, “Sequential Schooling of the Dressage Horse”.  I am drawing this type of information into my experience of late and I love analyzing the finite descriptions that all different trainers use to bring along young horses.

 

This article has some great tidbits about the specific use of aids and progression of the horse, but my favorite part is that in every section she describes the careful consideration the rider must give to the horse and how he feels.  She describes all different types of horses and then reiterates that ‘effective correction and reward differ not only from horse to horse, but can be different for each horse, according to mood, excitement level, location (home or away), weather, and level of training.’

This!  This!  This!

The best thing I can do for my riders is to help them read the horse.  If you are always looking for a recipe or a formula to create the perfect ride, it does not exist.  What does exist is our ability to read the horse and communicate information precisely and thoughtfully to them in any given situation.  Horses are kinesthetic learners AND communicators.  It is crucial to be able to denote the differences in your horse every day.  We can certainly dial in many of the variables (feed, amount of work, turn-out, veterinary care… etc).  But there will still be differences.

I always give homework at the end of lessons, to keep the pair working between their lessons.  But the best thing you can search for as the rider is the feeling we created during the lesson.  Yes, a shoulder-in might help you get there.  Yes, transitions might help you find it.  But it is up to you to decide how to use your tools to create the cohesive partnership that we all search for.

So, when you’re riding, in a lesson or alone, search for those harmonious feelings of ease in your work together.  I always try to tell you the moment to memorize, but you know them.  If you give yourself the task of feeling the moments of ease, you find them a lot more readily when you go searching.

Happy riding!

The Stories We Tell…

This past weekend, our group of Eventers headed out to Pima County Fairgrounds in Tucson to take advantage of the lovely cross-country course that was recently installed there.  The Southern Arizona Eventing Association has put in countless hours and money into developing the course at this excellent facility.  The course continues to evolve and improve under their dedication.

As I was walking around the course and then riding around the course, I thought about all the stereotypes that we perpetuate.  There’s the horse that doesn’t like ditches, the horse with a down-bank problem, the horse that always ducks left, the horse that’s always fast, or always slow.  There are endless personalities that we assign our horses.  The same way we assign characteristics to people, but worse, we assign them to ourselves as well.  I always get ahead.  My hands are terrible.  I have an electric seat.  My left leg is weak.

The trouble is, we are unconsciously renewing these habits.  We put so much time, energy and money into training our horses and ourselves, why would we verbally commit to some bad habit.  Some would say that they saw the photo evidence or can feel the bad habit happen.  I say, ignore reality!  Just kidding! But really, giving our endless attention to the things that are not working, does not serve us on our quest to improve.

When my students have a stop, I do not generally have them get after the horse.  Same with a run-out.  In both of these scenarios, the horse was not correctly tuned to the riders’ aids and we would do much better by spending several minutes on transitions to get the horse in front of the leg or leg yielding/shoulder-in at the walk and trot to gain equal control of both sides of the horse’s body.  If the horse get’s a crummy spot to a fence, the problem was not the fence, the problem was the cadence of the trot or canter on approach and we are far better served in focusing on that quality.

Imagine you are riding to a ditch on a horse that you describe as having a ‘ditch problem’.  Most likely your are trying to drive the horse forward thinking, “He’s going to stop.  Don’t stop.  He has a problem stopping at ditches.  Don’t stop.  He’s going to stop.”  Do you know what your horse hears?  “Stop.  Stop.  Stopping.  Stop. Stop.”  That stop happened before you began your approach.

So, don’t negate all the hard work you’ve put into riding.  Practice positive self talk, no matter how cheesy it sounds.  And recognize that we, and our horses, are a work in progress and that we are never finished and we’ll never get it done.  That is the beauty of this sport and the relationships with our horses, it is constantly evolving.

Happy evolving!

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