Saturday, January 29, 2011

Let's talk equine psychology

Little known fact: I have a degree in psychology. Sure, it's a degree related to humans, but I'm sure some of it should transfer over to horses.

While sitting around the barn today, I talked to a couple of the teens about my mare. One rides her on occasion, the other just handles her around the barn and has ridden her in the past. Their consensus is that Fiona is bipolar. She can swing from being the most mellow horse around to having a meltdown, and then right back to being mellow. In the span of five minutes. We also talked about the fact that the princess is practically the twin of another chestnut Thoroughbred mare in the barn.

This did get me thinking. Every horse is unique, but that uniqueness tends to get lost. We fall into the habit of stereotyping any horse based on horses we have met before. Breed, gender, color, discipline, even the shape of the head. The princess is particularly subject to this, being a chestnut Thoroughbred mare. I can't think of any other combination of descriptors that is the subject of more jokes. Most people take one look at her and immediately assume what she will do next. Clearly she is going to be fast, hot, cranky, and crazy. It's a perfectly natural human behavior and based on a mental process that makes us more adaptable. Generalization is why we can be introduced to a concept in one place and understand a slightly different version by extending what we already know. It's very handy dandy, but very dangerous.

When a person sees something, they immediately classify that object according to what they already know. It's a survival trait. Is it a threat, or something useful? I really don't discourage it, since we're often right, but so long as people are aware of what they are doing, they can compensate for it. I have met Appaloosas that were triers and pocket ponies. I have met Arabians that I would happily take for a solo trail ride. I have met draft crosses that would bolt and shy and generally act like the world was ending if a piece of paper blew by. They were not beginner or amateur friendly, despite the reputation the cross has.

It's a minor detail when handling a horse on the ground, but when it comes to training? I have to step back and think: what will work best for my horse. Not someone else's TB, not my previous horse, not what some trainer suggests, but Fiona? She is unique. She has a unique combination of genetics and experiences. While she will have things in common with other horses, making generalization very useful, she will react as Fiona and not as a chestnut Thoroughbred mare. But isn't that what makes the game fun? No horse is the same, no two rides will ever be identical. Horses are not robots, they are living, breathing, changing creatures.

The princess has several people scratching their heads, trying to figure out how to make this work reliably. I, however, am convinced that she is not bipolar. She is ADD, and so am I, so we work out just fine. Who cares about five minutes ago, we've already forgotten about that. We're already working on the next thing to catch our attention. It's a match made in heaven, and we are having all the fun. Haters to the left, lovers of chestnut Thoroughbred mares to the right.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Planning is overrated

Raspberry lemon drop martinis are fabulous things. They're a cool color, they taste like summer, and they are just the thing after a lesson that makes your lower back try to curl up into a ball. Lower backs are not supposed to do that, so it's less than comfortable.

Poles on the ground are a challenge. They have been for some time. I thought we had it under control, she was trotting sets of three and one time even four poles without jumping through them. However, in today's lesson, she was not too clear on this concept. Sometimes she would trot through, other times she would jump through. Or just over. My back was not at all amused by her going from a slow, sedate trot to jumping over the three trot poles (approximately nine feet wide) with no warning. My dressage saddle did not help matters much and I think I hit my butt on that high cantle. There's a reason we don't jump in those stupid things.

Yesterday was another snow storm (another foot of snow, like we needed that), so she did have some extra energy, but that's never really her issue. She would walk through the poles on the buckle every time. It's just when she's trotting in that she thinks she's supposed to jump. She's completely calm before and even after. My instructor for the winter was a bit fascinated by the princess's behavior. She wasn't afraid or stressed, just anticipating and jumping poles like they were fences. It is like she truly believes her job is to jump these, and she's confused by just stepping over them. It was a challenging lesson. But then again, they've all been challenging lately.

I've thrown out the Omnibus. Metaphorically speaking, since it's online, but I'm just not going to make any competition plans. There is too much going on and too many gaps. Competing should be the last of my worries. The first of my worries? That's a toss up between my canter transitions and being able to jump without scaring people. I may do nothing more than two foot this entire show season, and I have to adjust my thoughts from 'but that's not progress!' to 'that is okay'. I am okay with this. It is not embarrassing or anything like that. Patience is a virtue.

Damn my competitive nature.

I have her purple heavy on her now, and purple is a really good color on her. I'm thinking about ordering some new chains for her browband, some gaudy ones that would never see the inside of a show ring. Purple is definitely in the lead for colors to go with my lovely redhead. Maybe something in royal blue to go with my cross country colors. I may not be able to jump her around, but she is very eye catching on the flat and blingy browbands suit her.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

How many weeks until spring?

Yes, this is a dead horse, but I'm going to beat it some more.

The view from outside of my apartment this morning

When is spring?! I know it's only January 22nd, but I'm starting to lose my mind. Fiona has her heavy blanket on now due to sub-zero temps in New Hampshire where she lives. I seem to be wearing long johns with everything, including my work clothes. Nothing says professional like tromping up to your office with snow boots. Sure, I change into my proper office heels once I'm inside, but it never fails. Some big wig always sees me when I'm looking like a hobo with a snow boots and slacks.

It's less the cold than the sudden piles of snow everywhere. It's hard to cross intersections right now because the snow banks are higher than my car. It's like driving blind. The problem is compounded for my dogs. I have probably mentioned the two Miniature Pinschers that rule my apartment.

The problem with several feet of the white stuff being piled everywhere is that my dogs are only twelve inches tall. The red one, Cowboy, doesn't mind the snow much. He'll leap into it and do his impression of a bounding bunny. Cruizer, the black and tan, is much more sensitive to cold and is usually holding one (or two) feet in the air and crying within two minutes of being outside. Both of them are getting up there, and the older one (Cruizer) has some neurological issues, so ice is not their friend. Potty walks have been timed in seconds as of late. Poor little guys. At least they have all day turn out in my living room. Nice part about little dogs, my apartment is the equivalent of having a couple acres to play in.

I'm trying to will myself to brave the elements and go out to see Fiona. She did some lovely work for my yesterday and one of the teens hopped on her for a bit so I could see her progress. I'm starting to see much potential in this one for the lower level dressage. Jumping? Not so much. Lets just say one of my classmates in my last jumping lesson was practicing her deep, calming breathing. While watching us jump.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Fashion statement

Before I fell to the dark side and decided to pursue eventing, I was firmly entrenched in the land of hunters and jumpers. I grew up riding hunters, plopping around quite happily and practicing how to show well in a hack. After college, I got back into riding and got a real look at what the hunter ring costs as an adult. As one friend's boyfriend said, "Why don't you all just stand in a ring and throw money at each other? Whoever has the most money wins."

This led to me moving to jumpers and equitation. In some ways it was freedom. Showing the jumpers meant no braids, no jackets (unless you were in a classic), and spiffy open front boots. On equitation days I still had to braid and dress up, but that was the exception rather than the norm. Playing on the h/j circuit with a big barn meant that I had quite the collection of equipment. We had requirements for blankets and equipment for away shows, and everything had to match. When I switched disciplines, a lot of that old training and equipment came with me.

At first glance, we definitely look like eventers. There's the armband, the vest, the number on her bridle. No pinny, since it's a schooling show, but you know what we're doing. If nothing else, there's no sign of a ring. But look closer.

She's braided. I'm perfectly comfortable jumping with braids, I grew up grabbing on to braids for dear life while naughty ponies made sure I rode every step. I actually broke two of her braids on cross country from using them. I hate taking them out after dressage, since I want her to look spiffy in all three phases. My trainer humors me, since I'm just in the baby divisions. You can't see it in the picture, but there's fancy stitching on her bridle. I was in the tack room a couple days ago and realized I had the only fancy stitch bridle. Then there's her boots. Leather open front jumping boots. Believe me, no one else in the barn has a set like those. I did get some Trizone boots for when she's introduced to water, but I don't school in them.

Yes, my breeches are Tailored Sportsman. I paid $200 for the stupid things, you better believe I'm still showing in them. Ditto on my hunt coat. It's very dark, it looks fine for dressage. My jump saddle is a flat little Passier Precision. Hardly a thing to keep me on, but I love it. It's fabulously comfortable and it fits us both well. I school in a baby pad and sheepskin pad to keep down on my laundry.

I don't think any of this is going to change any time soon. My trainer has had luck fixing some of my eq habits that could get me killed cross country, but the fashion sense is here to stay. And my moments of rebellion. I got a new browband, courtesy of Simple Change Browbands. I have a mare, I'm an eventer now, so I am having a blingy browband, dang it! I must make up for my ill spent youth with white shaped saddle pads and plain brown bridles!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Swearing like a sailor

Who else has a horse with a potty mouth? I'm sure I'm not the only one. I've had two horses that I've owned in my life, and both have had terrible potty mouths.

With Allen, it was blatantly obvious when he was cussing me out. People that barely knew us could see it and could practically hear it. As with most things, Allen was over the top. He swore like a sailor all the way around the ring when we were having an off day. There's nothing like having an eighteen year old campaigner inform you that you're doing it wrong.

One more time, b***, just one more time putting me into that f***ing line without giving me a decent d*** approach and you're doing it yourself. I will send you a** first right into that *** d*** flower box, you hear me? Now grab on to something, little girl, and I'll show you how it's actually f***ing done.

I loved that horse.

Fiona is slightly more delicate. She's a bit more of a well raised young lady. She doesn't swear wildly all around the ring. She mumbles quietly to herself. It's subtle, but occasionally punctuated by outbursts.

I am not in the mood to go round today. There is no problem with the way I carry my back, you should worry about how you carry your back. Don't poke me in the ribs, I don't want to bend left. Stop poking. I said stop it. I'm warning you . . . Okay, b***, now you've done it! You want lift? I'll give you f***ing lift! Maybe this isn't so bad. I can pick my back up, for now, anyway. But no, I'm not suppling to the left, you can forget it. I want my sugar cubes. Can we go fast yet?

Is this a thoroughbred thing? Or is this just my influence on my horses?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Memo to self . . .

I need to make a memo for myself, and tattoo it somewhere I'll always see it when I'm riding. The trick is that there's nowhere I can see a tattoo, especially in winter. The only skin exposed is my face, and I can't exactly see that. I could probably staple it to my gloves, I'm certainly not forgetting those in the dead of winter. Temperatures have been dipping down to zero in the mornings, and I'm not a big fan of frost bite.

But as to the memo, what would it say? To paraphrase, it would say, 'SETTLE DOWN AND WAIT'.

Being impatient is a major flaw of mine. I'm willing to acknowledge that and try to work around it. I know I can do Beginner Novice, and probably a good bit bigger than Beginner Novice. I know Fiona can do Beginner Novice, and probably a good bit bigger than Beginner Novice. So why can't we do it together? Why are we still jumping the exact same height we were jumping in September?

Patience is a virtue. I remember going through this phase with my previous horse when he got fit enough to feel good, but he wasn't strong enough to properly balance himself. We went through a phase of scaring everyone with bolting at fences and not being able to stop. My future open jumper was stuck at the two foot division, and it was downright embarrassing. Not for my horse, but for me. Being taken off with and getting rails at two foot on a seventeen hand horse is hard on the ego.

Sometimes I forget what this is about. This isn't about what division she'll do this summer, or whether or not she can canter fences, or if I end up skipping a showing season. This is about her whickering when I come out to visit her, this is about making peppermint cookies for her (and trashing my kitchen), this is about having a perfect canter depart and making a huge fuss over her while everyone else stares like I've grown another head. I have to remind myself, this is about neck skritches and hugs and little conversations no one else hears. Fiona doesn't care if she goes higher than Beginner Novice, and it's not like another year would hurt either of us. We'll get there, eventually.

I just need to be patient.

Also good advice for my jumping position. Uggh.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Cabin Fever

As just about anyone could expect, Fiona promptly bounced right back to her usual self. It does look like she has an issue with a certain TB gelding cantering at her, she shakes her head at him. Interesting, since she ignores most of the horses in the ring. I can work with that, it just means she has to be Working with a capital 'W' when other horses are passing her. As my trainer put it, we can put up with a lot of high maintenance horse stuff, but she's got to go Training level. I don't think the princess would mind the challenge.

I think we're all going a little stir crazy, being stuck in the indoor. I mean seriously, how many times can we go around in circles before sanity just checks out? And with the additional eighteen inches of snow we got, over ice from melting and refreeze, riding outside just isn't much of an option until camp. Pony and I are going to lose our minds!

Of course, along with stir crazy event horses come some really amazingly amusing side effects. For example, there is one horse in my barn that is simply the gassiest horse I've ever met. Canter transition, jumping, everything that might actually be work is punctuated by flatulence. That's amusing enough, since I can tell what he's working on by the frequency of his farting. But it gets better.

He spooks himself with his farts.

He farts when he spooks.

Anyone else putting this together? Yes, it is exactly that funny. He does a big canter depart and farts, which makes him bolt . . . and fart. And it gets better when there's another TB in the ring that spooks when the gassy horse spooks, and he farts when he spooks, so they were both farting and spooking around the ring. I do love the fact Fiona stood in the middle and just stared at the both of them like she couldn't believe it was happening.

Is it spring yet? Cabin fever at an eventing barn is just terrifying.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Bad Day

So we had a bad day.

To be fair, I had a bad day at work first. And she did work very, very hard on Monday. I knew something was up when I took her out of her stall. She was just edgy and cranky. She didn't want to be curried, which for her is just bizarre. Even when she's a little sore, she leans into it. I went to curry her like usual and she shifted away. I put on her saddle and she was biting the air. I figured it was because the grain cart was going by, which certain didn't help. She was pretty darn ticked by the time we got in the ring. Had to wait on her dinner, her back was tight, it was cold, and she had to wait for ten minutes to go in the ring. The princess was not happy, and when the princess isn't happy . . .

She kicked out at another horse. No warning, didn't even pin her ears, just whipped out with a hind leg with some real intent. I asked for a lead change and got a spin and a good look at the dirt instead. She was grinding her teeth and just not happy. From the way she was moving and acting, we think her topline is sore from her dressage work out. She wasn't lame, but tight muscles in both hips and over the top of her neck. She was swapping leads behind, which usually isn't a problem for her.

We quit early and I wrapped her up in her cooler. It was a bad day, there was no point in pushing it. She was sore and cranky, better to just save it for another day. It just caught me off guard so badly that I didn't know how to react. I wanted to cry when I was putting her to bed. My mare is a cuddle bug and tries her heart out, she doesn't spin and kick out. She's not one of those mares. But it's harder to think that when she has a day where she does everything people warned me about. Someone in my lesson heard me explaining the symptoms to my trainer, who was checking my mare over. We were both concerned, since that is so out of character. The other rider said, "Aren't all mares like that?" I had to bite back a sharp answer. The rest, maybe, but not my girl. Not Fiona.

Tomorrow will just be a lot of slow stretching. Hopefully I'll get my mare back when she's not sore.

Monday, January 3, 2011

I do love that mare

So we had our second dressage lesson today. I don't know what it is that makes me so dang nervous when I'm taking Fiona out and doing anything. Everyone knows she's a former pasture potato that I've had for four months, they are not going to be expecting Grand Prix level work. That doesn't change the fact that I definitely had the butterflies when our lesson started, and we actually had to work on exhaling for the first five or ten minutes. It might not have been noticeable on me, but the princess let everyone know anytime I was anxious or tense. That head flip is hard to miss.

Today's theme was 'gently but firmly ask her to do her job'. She can be such a hot tamale, I fall into the trap of backing off when she protests. As I was told today, sometimes she just needs to learn to deal. If I sit correctly and ask her to pick herself up, I should not stop the command because she protests. I should push until she does it, then reward her. Again I was waiting for the explosion, but it didn't come. When the head tossing didn't work, the princess decided I was serious and got serious to match.

This is the first time she has actually broke a sweat since we moved to the winter barn. That should say something about how hard she was trying by the end of the lesson. Our canter work is still shaky, particularly around the departs, but I know there were steps of real self carriage in there. The canter is going to be the last piece to come together, but there was a lot of progress made. I was given the tools to use over the next month to try to fix our departs. It should not be head to the sky for the first two strides, then a nice canter. She has to learn to strike off like a lady. Her balance issues are interfering, and I spent a lot of time focusing on feeling where her body was so I could get her appropriately balanced.

Everyone says it, get the hindquarters engaged and the front end will just fall into place, but it is still awesome to observe. While I was working on getting her to sit on her hocks and be supple, the front end just came into line with a beautiful frame. She has such a long neck, the training level frame looks very good on her. The clinician asked me what my goals were with her, and I found myself blurting out '2nd level'. I did 1st level with my previous horse, so 2nd level seems like a doable goal. Fiona certainly has the mind for it, and my clinician seems to think she has the movement to pull it off.

As much progress as was made, I have to admit, I felt like I was playing Twister at some points. 'Lift your ribcage on the left side to help keep her from popping up your right hip, now press and release with your left thigh but hold the circle with your right, outside rein to inside hip, exhale . . .' And that doesn't even include the instructions for where to place Fiona's four legs. Dressage is hard work! Who knew?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy 2011!

I Googled for 2011 images, this is what I got.
That is a sexy car.

I rang in the New Year in the best way possible. I went for a long hack in the snow with Fiona and her warmblood boyfriend. I've never actually ridden in the snow before, so that was something new for us. We kept it to a walk, since we did encounter knee deep drifts, but it was fifty degrees out and the sun was shining. What a nice break from the usual New England ice box. The princess was excitable after being stuck in the indoor so much, but we're making progress with helping her through her meltdowns. Asking for a shoulder-fore is a solid answer to the start of jigging and head craning. It makes her focus back on what's going on, and it helps that her boyfriend is so laid back about things. The day was a fabulous start to the new year, and I'm taking it as a good sign for 2011.

Everyone is making resolutions, but I've never been a big one for that. I did, however, start looking through the Omnibus with last year's show calendar for my barn at my elbow. I want to do Beginner Novice this summer. I know the princess has it in her, 2'7" is not going to be an issue for her in terms of physical ability. The game will be more mental with her.

Last year I went to Mystic in Conneticut as my very first (and so far only) sanctioned event. I liked the event, it was a good first outing, and I have my eye on that as Fiona's debut. The Cross Country was over all inviting and I have some confidence from being there before. That's at the end of May, so five months away. I cantered some two foot fences on Friday, including a bending line and a roll back. Is five months going to be enough time to move up? I guess we'll see.

We're back to jumping and hacking in the hackamore for awhile, since Fiona responds well to that. She sucks behind bits when I half halt, she's willing to be kicked into a hackamore. If nothing else, it's a good solution for right now. Maybe when she's got the idea she'll move back to the snaffle for jumping as well as dressage.

To everyone out there in cyberland, have a joyous and prosperous 2011. As someone said on the COTH boards, I resolve to live my life the way it should be lived this year. And learn to sit the trot.