Sunday, September 26, 2010

The debut

As I've said before, horseback riding is full of highs and lows. When things are good, they're very, very good, and when they're bad, they're rotten.

Today was one of the highs.

The princess made her show debut at a schooling 2-phase held by a nearby barn. At this point, we've had three jumping lessons total (and I'll admit to not having run through my dressage test at all beforehand). Keeping in mind her complete lack of jumping experience, we signed her up for the 22" division which meant that it was a walk/trot dressage test. Nice. Our canter is still a bit . . . dicey.

Of course this means a 5am wake up call to go help feed before the show. Thank you, 24 hour Burger King, for providing me with a Whopper at that hour of the morning. Not that my stomach was thrilled by me eating before I was fully awake, but it did make the first half of the show much easier. We popped her shipping boots on, wrapped her tail, and headed out to the trailer. At least, we tried to. Fiona stood there with this perplexed expression, trying to figure out how to walk in her shipping boots. A lot of horses will pick their back legs up after boots are put on, but Fiona did a lovely impression of a hackney pony all the way onto the trailer.

Aside from her rather dramatic hop down the ramp when we arrived, she shipped well. We tacked up and headed over to warm up for dressage. We're walking along, she's checking out the sights, and all of a sudden she just stops and stares. Straight ahead. She's even considering spinning and heading home, and for the life of me I can't figure out what she's looking at. Turns out she doesn't like large groups of people standing around. Funny, considering how people oriented she is. We eased her past it, and she warmed up very nicely. The dressage was in an indoor, and I was very proud of her for just walking in, having a look, and settling in. By the second half of her test, I was able to push her for some good stretching over her back. It was enough to get us a 36.0, and I was thrilled with her. A tie for third place!

She got some time off (and a lot of grass) before we headed back for the jumping. The warm up was a bit rough with two stops. The rainbow rails were just not okay with her. We had a bit of a scary moment when she jumped and suddenly decided to drop her head and bolt. I think that's the first time I've used a sharp correction with her, and it seems to have done the trick. She was very ladylike after that, but I was a bit worried about the stops. These jumps had very colorful standards, lots of flowers, some planks and fill were in use. How would I get her around if she stopped at the rainbow cross-rail in warm up?

Turns out that if you kick? Fiona will close her eyes and leap, even if she really doesn't want to jump that jump. I swear she actually closed her eyes over the third fence, which was a very looky one with wishing wells for standards and the walls that would be used for later heights set to the sides like wings. It looked like a fortress with a 22" vertical in the middle. The princess wanted nothing to do with it, but I gave her a bump and she just went for it. I grabbed a lot of mane for that launch, but she got big pats on the other side. By the end of the course, she was just rolling along and I let her canter the last three. A ten jump course, and by the halfway point the lightbulb went on. 'Oh, I go over these! Got it!'

No faults, and that bumped us to a pretty blue ribbon. I'm so thrilled with her, there are no words. She was very brave on a very looky course. She got a lot of treats and put to bed. Of course now I'm ready to crash out. Show days are always so horribly long, and I had the worst show nerves I've had in a long time. Turns out that I didn't need to worry that much, the little girl is still willing to work. So long as the crowds aren't staring at her too hard. But they are allowed to clap for her, she likes that.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

There be monsters in them there barrels!

And the woods, and the grass, and in my trainer's chair. The tractor? A demon. A moving demon that was working on one of the cross country jumps. Clearly, the entire world was out to get her today.

Note to self: On the next trip to Dover Saddlery, buy Saddle Tight. Because we're gonna need it once she's actually fit.

It had to be something in the air. Fiona was not the only thoroughbred in the ring that was convinced an army of chipmunks was descending on us and would kill us all in our sleep if we didn't get away from them immediately. Long, low, and relaxed was not the order of the day. The order of the day was 'OMG DID YOU SEE THAT ITS GOING TO EAT US OH #*((*@&$#&@#$^', followed by me going 'my back is going to hate me for that later'.

At least she's not dirty about it, but did you know that barrel jumps are deadly dangerous? I didn't, but Fiona was more than happy to explain it to me. If nothing else, the girl has scope to spare. Considering we're jumping about 2 feet. But I will give credit when credit is due. The girl is brave. Even if it's scary, even if she's not sure, she'll go. It might not be pretty, but she'll go. And just give it a foot or two of breathing space, to play it safe.

So now I sit with a glass of stout and a bunch of Advil, memorizing my test for the show on Sunday. Clearly, I've lost my mind.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Old dog using old tricks

Today was good. It's always nice to think that, and after our rather tense lesson on Thursday, it was doubly nice. The princess does not like riding in the rain and at one point in our lesson threw a temper tantrum. She was also feeling a bit sore after some serious work, and was just not in the mood to deal with me and my demands. I had to travel over the weekend, so she got light work with one of the other riders at the barn, and then Monday completely off.

She was nice and mellow today, not a lot of bad steps and clearly not feeling sore. Note to self, a sore Fiona tends to be a tight, fast Fiona. Our latest work has been on getting her as low and relaxed as possible. Getting her forward or on the bit is probably never going to be our issues. Our issues instead are in keeping her from being dependent on my hands and letting her know she has to control herself.

Never let it be said that anything we learn is a waste. I didn't think I'd ever use my hunter princess background again, or the things I learned when I was riding at a western pleasure barn. Guess what? Those tricks are very, very useful when teaching a horse to trot around, long and low, on a loose rein.

Slowing a thoroughbred down without using the reins is always a challenge. It wasn't until it dawned on me that my trainer wanted her to go like a hunter in a hack that the light bulb clicked and I started to ride her like that. We can't create a true forward without her being relaxed, rhythmic, and supple. It feels weird, since I know she's on her forehand more than she should be, but I keep reminding myself that she's not strong enough yet to carry herself properly. One day she will be, but not today. Asking for that today will just result in tension and soreness, probably ending in evasion. It's like weight lifting. We need to work up to it, and we need to do it in sets.

I am so, so, so glad my trainer rides her once a week. It's a sanity check and a barometer on our progress.

Today I finally made the connection between her tripping and her getting tired. She's so willing that it's hard to tell if she's tired. I'm finally getting to know her well enough to pick up the little signs, and since I'm not carrying her around with my hands, I can pick up those little trips now. Time to back off on trot and canter work and spend more time walking. And time for me to work on my patience. There's no rush, and if I take my time now, it will pay off in the end.

The currying has certainly paid off. She's actually a liver chestnut underneath everything. The more I curry, the darker and shinier she gets. I can't wait to see her winter coat come in. She could be surprisingly dark. Which explains that two tone tail that was confusing everyone. She's starting to really fill out. The 48 inch girth I got for her might not be her girth come spring. I might have to move her up to a 50.

We have a show this weekend. Yes, it's a schooling two phase, but it dawned on me today that I have a competition with her already. We're in pre-elementary with 22" fences and a walk/trot dressage test. It should be very interesting.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Barn Visitor

Say hi to Perdue.

Perdue randomly wandered into the barn last night, probably to get out of the rain I was riding in during my lesson. My trainer called all of her neighbors, but no one was missing a rooster. Perdue just hung out in the grain room for a couple hours, perfectly content to watch the working students making breakfast and packing for the trip to GMHA. Nice guy, for a rooster. I don't really like roosters, so it was a pleasant surprise.

Please keep in mind, my mom's roosters are pretty much feral and have chased me all over her property. And this isn't a story from my childhood, this happened the last time I was home to visit. They're rather territorial about sections of the garden. Those suckers can run!

A couple of phone calls finally found someone that could take poor Perdue somewhere safe. Which led to a group of us hanging out in the grain room door trying to figure out how we were going to catch the rooster and get him in the car. Someone got a box, but by this point, the rooster was taking a nap and had no interest in relocating. There was much debating about how to move this bird. My trainer was worried about it getting loose and pecking at her. In the rather amazing words of a spectator, "I'm worried about his spurs, I'm not worried about his pecker!"

It took us about five minutes to calm down enough to deal with the rooster.

In the end, I put my zip up sweat shirt over him so he couldn't see, scooped him up like my mom taught me with her ducks, and tucked him in the box. Lid went on, he was loaded into the car, and sent off to hang out with some other chickens. So long, Perdue. It was fun.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Bubble Wrap

There are so many ups and downs that come with horses. One day it's like the world is perfect and nothing can go wrong. The next day, same horse, and all you can do is stare and wonder if you're ever, ever going to get it right. Any of it. This isn't even about Fiona, or any horse in particular. It's just the nature of the sport. There seems to be little middle ground. Either we cruise around, or we demolish a fence. So many teeny, tiny little things that can bring everything crashing down. You're out for a gallop, or you're hand walking.

I check her back and legs like I'm obsessed. Both before and after work. She's just coming back into work, I know that, but I can feel how weak she is behind. Sometimes it's hard to tell if she's just weak or sore or if something else is going on. She trips and I have a heart attack. It's probably not healthy, but I seriously want to wrap her up in bubble wrap.

There's a reason my trainer thinks I'm nuts.

I feel like I'm holding my breath, just waiting for the bomb to drop. That feeling started as soon as I signed the bill of sale and realized I owned a horse. From my previous horse, I'm pretty sure my reaction is temporary but highly annoying. I got out of practice with just how delicate a balancing act this can be. You want to go out and do things, and your horse agrees, but it comes with an element of risk. It's all a matter of planning and calculated risk taking. It's no different than when I decide to drive my car. That's a calculated risk, and I take measures to minimize the risk. The difference is that I've been driving almost every day of my life since I was sixteen. Fussing over a horse that I own is not something I have nearly as much practice with.

Remember that antacid I bought back when I started horse shopping? Started picking it up in bulk. I forgot about that aspect of horse ownership. At least this TB isn't sharing ulcer meds with me. Possibly the most food motivated horse I've ever met.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Fiona: One Month Down

So here we are, one month into Project Fiona. I'll snap off some comparison pictures tomorrow, since I finally have that mane of hers under control. I also got some help at the barn to get her tail nicely trimmed. Hours of currying have resulted in a very sharp bit of counter-shading that looks enough like a dorsal stripe to have me wondering if she could be something other than TB.

Then she took off with me in my last jumping lesson and I decided she is all thoroughbred. Yeehaw.

But it's been going well outside of the occasional 'it's fall and I feel good so I'm going to temporarily lose my mind' moments. A friend was heading to the town arena and invited us along for a little field trip. Fiona performed beautifully, even going for a long hack down a dirt road and seeing the sights. She did give the rather large heron we found a serious look, but was a complete lady otherwise. Turned out to be a great outing for her. There was a drill team practice, so lots of trailers and activity. There was also a soccer game across the street, so kids on foot with equipment and on bikes. She handled everything quite well. I think I like the way she goes when away from home better, since she's not so focused on heading back to the stable and food.

She's still going in the loose ring snaffle for everything and showing no signs of needing a different bit. My trainer has started riding her once a week, and we both think she's missing some of the fundamentals. It's almost like someone jumped straight to the fun stuff without taking care of the boring basics first. Back to the drawing board. Sure, she can do a flying lead change, but she has a lot of trouble with adjusting her gaits and her downward transitions are pretty sloppy.

Here is Fiona in her great Youtube debut:

Lots of work to do, but I think we've got a good start!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Princess

I love the show name 'Can't Drive 55', but somehow I think she's going to be Princess Fiona, since it just fits her so perfectly. She is a princess, from her nose to her tail. Usually I would use the term princess in a derogatory manner, but with her, it's just descriptive. She's a sensitive, smart, athletic young lady that likes to remind me from time to time that she is all Thoroughbred.

They were mowing today. Normal enough activity, but Fiona is more sound sensitive than sight sensitive, so she was turning her head to keep an ear and an eye on the activity. Not a big deal, and she was a lady while I curried and brushed. Then the lawn mower hit something (probably a rock, it is New Hampshire) and there was a loud bang. Fiona wasn't the only one to jump, but she was certainly the most dramatic. Jumped forward, hit the cross ties, skittered back and stepped off the mats, lost her balance and left a skid mark on the concrete before she jumped back onto the mats and just stood there shaking. No harm, didn't break the cross ties or run into anything, but she was jumpy for a good fifteen minutes after that. I think she scared herself more than the lawnmower did.

Honestly, I don't mind. She kept her marbles and didn't panic or bolt. Even when she sees the kids in the pool (which still makes her crane her head all the way up), she seems to keep her wits and avoid a complete melt down. It gives me hope for her future as an eventer. We're signed up for two schooling shows, one in September and one in October. We'll see how she does, but I think if she stays in a frame and a 'working' mind set we'll be fine.

I've learned that she's one of those horses that you must ride every step of the way. You can't be balancing your check book while trotting her, or she'll find something else to do. Usually looking around and finding something to spook at. She has a working mind set and the off duty mind set. The off duty mind set is convinced the large rock next to the arena will eat her one day. The working mind set barely pays it an ear flick. Now puddles, those are horrible things. The princess does not like mud. She'll go through it, but she would rather go around. She can be very quick with her feet to manage it.

My trainer is going to be riding her one day a week starting this month. It's a double bonus, since that gives me a day off from the barn, and gives her a training ride. Having my trainer be very familiar with her quirks can only be a bonus. I've moved her to a loose ring snaffle (4.5", such a little girl), and she seems to go better in that. We're working in a long and low frame pretty much all of the time now, building up muscle and teaching her to relax.

The other major accomplishment? Pulling her mane.

No thoroughbred has any business growing this much hair. This has been a project since I got her to get her mane under control, and I think we are finally there. She's good about it, that's the good news. Since it looks like it will have to be a weekly thing. I was having flash backs to ponies from my childhood while I worked until I had an ankle deep pile.

Also, odd fact. The bottom of Fiona's tailbone? Her hair comes in black. She's a very bright chestnut, not at all liver colored, so it's pretty confusing. Where is this black hair coming from? It gives her a dramatic two-tone tail that people can pick out from a distance, but I'm not at all sure how that happened. Not that I mind. I keep conditioner with sunscreen on it just in case. I love the effect, and I don't want it to fade out.