Thursday, May 31, 2012

Time management

For the past five months, I haven't been the primary rider on my horse.  My trainer has been the primary rider.  While I ride 3 - 4 times a week, she's been riding 4 - 5 times a week and none of those are spent wandering around in the town forest getting lost.  However, that phase of Fiona's training is coming to an end.  My spring quarter has wrapped up and starting tomorrow, the princess is off of full training and I'm back in as the primary rider.  It will be my keister in the saddle for her upcoming events.

Fiona at the GPC 3-Phase

I'll admit, it's been pretty luxurious having her in training.  If I'm kept late at work, I don't have to feel guilty about Fiona sitting in her stall idling away.  I rode when I could manage it and it was exclusively to keep myself in shape and on the ball.  The princess was getting work regardless of the level of distraction I had going on.  It was also awesome to have my trainer getting to know my horse that well.  It makes a huge difference in a lesson if your trainer knows how your horse feels, all of the unique little quirks, and how they will probably react to an exercise.  Her dressage in particular has progressed by leaps and bounds over the past five months.

It was awesome, but I'm ready to get back to work.  I've learned a lot about myself during this phase and while it was perfect timing and made perfect sense, I was frequently frustrated and it actually discouraged me from riding.  Without that sense of responsibility, I didn't fight to make time to go to the barn.  It was easier to just stay at home or sleep in rather than working early so I could head to the barn after work.

Of course this means that I'm back to juggling my full time job, my one summer class, and a very athletic mare with a full competition schedule.  The nice part about summer is that there are a lot of teenagers hanging around looking for extra ride time.  It should be easy to bribe one into helping out with keeping the princess fit.  Even if it's just one day a week, that takes some pressure off of me for those weeks when work is eating me alive and I have homework due and the husband is insisting that I actually see him once in awhile.  Husbands are so funny that way.

Sleep isn't actually necessary.  I survived college without it, I can do it again.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Fashionable asphyxiation

I never thought there would be a day when I would miss wearing a ratcatcher.  For those that aren't familiar with the term, the ratcatcher is that standy up collar that people wear in the hunter/jumper ring.  It's uncomfortable, and as a kid, I used to 'lose' them on a regular basis.  I hated wearing them, I always felt like I was choking.  It was fun when custom monograms were all the rage, though.  I had a horse jumping through my initial, pretty flowers, all sorts of things on my collars.  It was my bit of bling in the hunter ring and it helped with the fact that I was slowly being asphyxiated by my own clothing.

But why would I ever miss wearing something that uncomfortable and, quite honestly, unflattering?  Because my other option is the infamous, accursed stock tie.

It's like a ratcatcher on steroids because not only is it trying to choke me, it has a big knot and froofiness (yes, that's a word) in front.  Believe me, the front of me does not need further emphasis.  Now I get to wrestle the tails down and pin them so they don't fly out and slap me in the face during my test.  That's assuming that I can find my pins once I'm at the show.  There's some sort of beast living in my garment bag that lives to eat pins.  Judging by some of the frantic exclamations I hear in trailer dressing rooms, I'm not the only one.

If I had any common sense, I'd own a pretied stock tie.  Then you can just velcro it on!  However, I haven't found one that I like that fits me well.  Most of them look kind of sad and flattened.  I don't want that.  If I'm going to have to have froofiness on my chest, I want it to be froofy!  I own a very nice stock tie that has a subtle check pattern to it that I'm sure will be a fabulous tie one day.  If I can subdue it.

I spent fifteen minutes in front of a mirror last time I showed trying to make my stock tie look anything other than very sad.  I managed a nice, fluffy knot that was in the center and shaped the right way, but the tails were just kind of a flop.  I ran out of time, slapped a stock pin on, and went in to show.  But I am not thwarted!  Before I go to Valinor, I will figure out how to create the required froofiness on my chest!  Mostly because my declaration that I was going back to ratcatchers (which are completely legal in eventing) was shot down by the trainer, working students, and everyone else in ear shot.

My research so far has shown that I need more starch to make the tails fold just so.  I also need to pin it higher and catch the knot with the stock pin.  Huh, who knew?  I also saw a trick where, when you're done with the knot, you pull the tails up under the collar again and then pin them.  Nifty!  Asphyxiating, but nifty!  So both of my stock ties are currently in the wash so they can be heavily starched, ironed, and then tied about a thousand times while I figure out how to do this.

I'm not obsessive about turn out.  Really, I'm not. 

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Sharing is caring

I read on a blog once that the greatest gift an owner can give their horse is to teach them how to do a job.  That way, if they ever needed one, they could find another home and wouldn't end up as one of the unwanted horses we see at rescues and in kill pens.  Fiona used to be one of the unwanted ones, a horse that didn't have a job and then the horse that wasn't to be jumped.

Fiona's fearsome reputation took a major blow this weekend.  One of the teenagers was entered in a sanctioned horse trial but her horse went lame.  My trainer texted me and asked if she could take Fiona instead.  I said sure, assuming she was okay with jumping the princess.  This happened on Thursday and they were leaving on Friday for the show, so there was just the one lesson to figure out whether or not they suited.  I'm sure it was unnerving to tack up a mare with a reputation like the princess's, but this particular teen enjoys riding TB mares with some need for speed.  I wasn't worried at all.  As dramatic as she looks from the ground, she always feels very safe to ride.

The teen bounced about at beginner novice height and even took the princess out onto the jumping field to do some cross country fences.  Fiona was quite good.  She did leave a stride out on the four stride, which was a bit unnerving for the rider, but she was honest, well behaved, and enthusiastic.  The rider sounded out of breath but thrilled after jumping her.  I got a message today after the show saying that Fiona was awesome and it included this picture:

I am honestly thrilled that Fiona was even considered for this.  It says a lot for how far she's come that someone was able to get on her, jump a couple courses, and then take her to a show.  It also says a lot for the guts of the rider, to take a relatively unknown horse to a show.  As my graduate classes wind down and I look at taking Fiona off of full training, I'm hoping that this is the first step to my princess getting some more dates with other riders.  While the image of having a horse that no one can handle but you is very romantic (I've heard it called the Black Stallion syndrome), I don't want that.  I want the opposite of that.  I want the Black Beauty syndrome.  I want lots of people to enjoy my horse.

I expect to have her for the rest of her days, but if, gods forbid, something happens to me?  I want her to be an established Novice level eventer and first level dressage horse that can run about with a junior rider.  I think someone would take her in with that kind of resume.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Does not follow directions well

Let's discuss these dressage tests.

How are they written?  Do they put a bunch of dressage gurus in a room, get them high on crack, and then hand them some paper and pens?  It would explain so much.  Any eventer knows what I'm talking about.  Listening to people discuss their tests can tell you a lot about how confusing these things are.

When in doubt, just go across the diagonal in that test.
No, really, you start down center line at the walk.
I call it the drunken line move, since you're going straight and then just kind of wander off to the right.
G is practically in the judge's lap.  Don't halt until they can see up your horse's nose.

Just look around at any horse trial next to the dressage rings.  You'll see at least one person going over their test.  They're easy to identify, they're the ones mumbling to themselves and drawing odd figures in the air.  They might also be looking skyward as they send up a last minute prayer to the gods of memory and retention.  I'd think it was funny, but I'm a member of their ranks.  This is the real reason why I still show in my Tailored Sportsman breeches:  big pockets that you can hide a dressage test in for last minute, panicked checks on the moves.

The letters make no sense and the moves only make a little bit of sense.  It helps when everything is a mirror image, sure, but only if you're not at all dyslexic.  I'm a bit dyslexic.  I've memorized more than my fair share of tests backwards.  Right, left, same difference.  It's a pity those judges like to ring their little bells when you turn the wrong way.  I don't see what the big deal is.  I'm doing left lead now, I'll do right lead in a minute, just keep your shorts on.

Most of these rants are triggered by something, and in this case, it's the row of tests I have open right now in my browser's tabs.  I've got Training Level 3, First Level 1, Novice A, and Novice B all open.  I counted them up and I think I've got nine different tests that I'm going to need to know this summer.  Any bets on how many errors I get this year?

Let's just put it this way.  I shouldn't be starting my twenty meter circle in front of a judge and realizing that I haven't recalculated my mental markers for a circle in the middle of the arena versus at the end.  It was a complete wing it test, complete with a mare that's done Beginner Novice A so many times that she tried to head right when we hit X on our entering center line.  Having a clever mare is great for some things, but darn annoying when she's trying to tell me how the test goes and she's doing the wrong one.  I got 'need to ride test more accurately'.  I might want to try practicing these tests a bit more before competition.  Just a thought.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Courage and beloved little ponies

A lot of eventing is about courage.  It takes guts, end of story.  Whether that courage is in facing the judge in dressage or jumping the coffin that makes you feel queasy, we all have our moment of courage.

My moment of courage today was to go into stadium, knowing that the corners were going to be difficult and that it was going to take all that we had to get around the course.  And we pulled it off.

Fiona won the dressage and was clean in stadium. It was probably the best stadium we've had, considering the difficulty of some of those turns. I was just thrilled with her performance.

Cross country was another matter entirely.  

I'll be the first to admit, I did not want to jump number two. Flat out did not want to jump it.  It was a big metal barrel or drum. Just tapping my fingernail on it made weird noise and the idea of my sound sensitive mare rapping it with her hooves? I had images of her taking off dancing in my head on the approach, bad enough to make me feel sick. When she hesitated, I wasn't there to say it was okay like I usually do.  Fiona is a horse that will borrow courage from her rider when she's unsure and I just wasn't there for her.  It cost us two stops. Since I had to smack her on the shoulder to get her over, she was rather upset for the rest of the round.  I actually tore a hole in my gloves getting her back because she was so frazzled.

Lots of people call that gutsy, riding a fit TB when she's upset and stressed, but I saw another rider that I considered to be gutsier.

Once upon a time, I was this girl.  I was the little girl on an adorable little pony facing down my first course of verticals.  Now I'm just part of her cheering section/support crew.  She moved up today, moving out of the cross rail division.  It takes guts to go in there and jump around a bunch of verticals.  She took a little tumble in stadium, but she hopped back on and completed her course.  Then she went out and completed her cross country.  It was a real cross country, looping around the field with almost as much distance as the course I ran.  She had a working student running the cross country with her to give her confidence (her second time going out on cross country ever), but by the end of the course the working student was wheezing and lagging far behind while she completed it all on her own.

That takes every bit as much guts as handling Fiona on the worst of her days.  She's going to be a cracker jack rider when her legs get long enough to handle a bigger horse.  Though I do love her little pony, Dancer.  A twenty-something, been there done that mare that I'm sure this little rider will look back on some day with very fond memories. 

There is a very special place in heaven for the ponies like her.  She can share a pasture with my first pony, Terry.  I fell off of him a lot, too, but that pony taught me a ridiculous amount.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Numbers numbers everywhere

How many numbers can one horse and rider pair have?

The answer is a lot.  A whole hell of a lot.  Eventing isn't too bad, Fi and I both have our USEA numbers and we're all set.  Now that I'm entering sanctioned dressage shows, I've got more numbers to deal with.  Now there's a USDF number and a USEF number for each of us.  And, to make things even more complicated, I have to send copies of all of these cards along with my dressage entry.

I submitted the thing online but I'm going to have to put extra postage on this envelope by the time I'm done printing out all this proof that I am who I say I am and my horse is who she says she is.  Well, I say she is.  Fi does not respond to Can't Drive 55, she only responds to Princess.  Or cookie.

I showed up at her paddock today and called 'pony want a cookie?'.  She trotted right over.

Those numbers are pretty straightforward.  I just sign on the dotted line saying that the mare is mine and that she's not registered under any other number.  Easy peasy.  The tough number is the one that I'm still working on:  Jockey Club.

When I bought the princess, I was told that she was a registered Thoroughbred, but had no papers.  As I had no intentions to breed or show in anything that required breed papers, that wasn't a problem for me.  Now the Jockey Club has their Thoroughbred Incentive Program.  I think this is a really neat program, and not just for recognizing TBs that have gone on to new jobs.  This is neat because the Jockey Club is helping owners of TBs identify their horses.  A lot of horses seem to lose their histories as they move away from the track and not all of them are tattooed.  I've been working with someone through this program to identify Fiona, assuming she really is a registered Thoroughbred.  I have just about zero history on her, and with her limited markings, they weren't able to identify her by pictures.  Today I collected some of her mane to mail off for DNA typing.  This is my last ditch attempt to identify her.  If this doesn't work, we can assume she's not actually a Thoroughbred.

I don't know of any other breed organization that's reaching out to help people identify their horses like this.  If she's not a TB, she will have to accept her status as a *gasp* grade mare.  Not that it makes the slightest bit of a difference, least of all to her.  She already knows she's the neatest thing since sliced bread.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Career contemplation

We're on day 632 of Project Fiona.

We've got eight sanctioned events under Fiona's belt plus numerous schooling shows, hunter paces, and even a sanctioned dressage show.

At this point, I think that I know my horse well enough to consider her career choices.  What makes the princess happy and what will she enjoy doing for the rest of her days?  I've got a lot of years to plan for since she'll be spending the rest of her days with me.  Who on Earth would ever buy her, anyway?  She's a rare vintage and it takes a very specific palate to enjoy her.  We just lucked out that she's the exact kind of vintage I appreciate.

We'll start with the three phases of eventing, then branch out to the other areas she's played with:

Dressage:  Yes, the princess likes this part.  She will happily head into the arena and get to work.  She has moments of resistance, but that has more to do with asking her for something that's difficult.  She'll get these relaxed, floppy ears and do her darndest to do things right.  Her greatest flaw is trying too hard in this phase, making her tense.  The only catch is that she needs something else to break up the monotony, whether that's a trail ride or a jumping day.  We do not want the princess to be bored.

Cross country:  YES.  The princess would do this every single day if we let her.  Gallop and jump!  This is her idea of heaven.  She's bold, she's brave, and she is one happy pony.  Her ears are up, she's tugging at the bit, and she's ready to roll.  She's pure heaven to ride, so long as you don't mind a horse that wants to gallop and gallop hard.

Stadium:  No.  I've accepted the fact that Fiona doesn't like stadium.  The quick turns and short time between jumps stress her out.  There's something going on psychologically, possibly due to previous training.  She can do a ten meter turn at the canter with just some grunting from effort, we've done it on the flat numerous times.  Try to do a twenty meter turn in stadium and she's suddenly swapping leads, popping her head in the air, and generally carrying on.  She's no longer obedient and in no way relaxed.  It's a bit like managing a powder keg in the middle of a burning building, to use my mother's analogy.

Trail rides:  Fiona was made for this.  Alone, in a group, in the woods, on the beach, front of the group, back of the group, walk on the buckle, quick gallop, she's content to do it all.  While she really enjoys a quick canter through the trees, she'll march along like a western trail pony on a loose rein.  I still think she has the makings of an endurance horse or even a competitive trail horse (the kind that's actually out on a ten mile trail, not the kind in a ring).

Hunter paces:  Oh, so much yes!  These are the best of all worlds.  She gets to go out and jump cross country without the silly other phases and it lasts more than five minutes!  Fiona has thoroughly enjoyed every hunter pace she's been out on.

Foxhunting:  We've had to rule this out due to some of her dog aggression issues.  While she's usually good, if she feels like her personal space is being threatened, she has struck out with her front hoof before.  I don't want to risk her striking out at a hound if the pack is running past her legs.  It's a good feature out on the trails where loose dogs can be an issue, I'd rather she stand her ground and threaten in that situation, but no good for foxhunting.

Barrel Racing:  No way.  Way too stressful as far as the princess is concerned, even if she got a ribbon.  I will never forget the spectators fleeing in fear as Fiona barreled across the ring at the end of her run.  The word was out that she was an eventer and there was a better than 50/50 chance she was just going to jump out of the ring at the end.  Got to love it when your horse is athletic enough to spark a stampede.

So what does this mean for the princess's future?  I'm still debating on that.  She's happy with most of the things she's tried in her life, but one of the three phases of eventing is a major source of stress.  Let's face it, if these stadium issues keep up the way they have been, she's not going to be able to move up past Novice any time in the near future.  We can get away with a lot when the fences are only 2'11", but I'm going to be eating dirt if I try to do a triple combination at 3'3" and she's still skittering sideways in the turns.  She's got professionals scratching their heads at her shenanigans.  Until we hit a major breakthrough, she's maxed out.

Does that mean we've already hit the peak of her competitive career?  I don't think so.  The girl has a lot of dressage potential.  The lower level stuff is boring for her, but she's got the moves and the mind to move up.  She won't be a stunning, 70% topping, championship winning dressage horse, but a bronze medal is well within her abilities.  A bronze medal means that she gets two tests over 60% in first level, second level, and third level.  And it's something that she could relax and learn without major drama.  I asked a dressage trainer if Fiona could do it, and she laughed and replied, "With her eyes closed.".  Of course I've never gone past first level myself, so it will be a learning experience for both of us.  I can probably manage getting her to second level with some help, but third level?  That will be an adventure.  The best part about dressage is that she can keep going on that for another decade easily.

We're going to continue to fight the good fight to figure out the stadium issues, but it might be better for both of us if I settle in for the long haul in Novice and start looking at moving her dressage up instead.   If I look at jumping and eventing as her fun time and her dressage as her work time, I think the princess might be a happier pony.  We're entered in a sanctioned dressage show for the end of June, including a first level test.  Let's see if the princess wants to change her focus a bit.  So long as we still have gallop and jump days.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Steering and brakes

It turns out that I didn't have to worry about the princess embarrassing anyone at UNH.  After spending an entire day biting my nails and pacing, I finally saw the live scores.  Fiona was in first after dressage.  Yes, Miss Overly Expressive and Energetic had held it together long enough to get a 33 and take first place on the first day.

At least that gave her some breathing room going into the jumping day.  With her new problems with running sideways and even running out if she's unhappy, we had no idea what would happen.  As my trainer put it, there was no point in worrying.  She would either turn and stop that day, or she wouldn't.  With Fiona, it's really hard to tell which way it's going to go.

It was a good steering and brakes day.

Just to put this in perspective, here is Fiona at Pine Top, the last time she went to a sanctioned event.

No time penalties and just the one rail due to her being goofy in just the one corner. The new bit does seem to make her a much happier pony, even if she's still a bit . . . enthusiastic. She followed up that stadium round with a lovely, clean run around cross country to end her day with a second place ribbon. Not a bad weekend at all! Since then, the jumps have moved up in preparation for her move back to Novice next weekend. It should be interesting. As my trainer put it, there's no point in worrying. She'll either steer that day or she won't. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for steering and brakes.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Being an owner

 Unlike last weekend, where I was fussing over my mare and going out for trail rides at my leisure, this weekend I am horseless.  My mare is off at a show, and I am sitting at home watching the live scores update.

Of course, she doesn't go until 4:50pm and it's just after noon right now.  I don't know why I'm already tracking the scores.

I'm still getting used to the idea of someone else taking my horse out and doing things with her.  It's the most logical thing to do while I'm in school and working at a full time job.  It means that she can go to sanctioned shows even when I can't spare an entire weekend and it means that she's getting all of the work and attention she needs even when I can only make it out to the barn three times in a week.  Doesn't mean I have to like it.

There's something about having someone else riding my horse at a show that makes me nervous.  I don't want my mare to embarrass anyone or for people to think badly of her.  I lot of people will react as though their horse is an extension of themselves, and I seem to be one of those people.  If my mare is bad, that's my fault, because she's mine, I chose her, and I did the training on her for the first year and a half.  It doesn't seem to compute for me that she's a living thing that makes her own decisions.   She's a mare, she's the one and only princess, and if she wants to do something?  There is no power in the 'verse that can stop her.

Enjoy the Firefly reference and comparing the princess to River Tam.  Hey, there are a lot of similarities there.

Hopefully she'll do well.  She's been better, but not consistent, with her stadium jumping.  She's slowed down quite a bit and is less frantic, but rather than the sideways routine in the corners, she will run out when stressed.  It's not about the jump, and it's not dirty, she just goes sideways on the approach if she's not happy with the situation.  Considering how much she likes to charge her fences, she's not thrilled with the 'no charging' rule.  I had an amazing jumping lesson on her last week, beautifully rideable, and then my trainer had a great ride on her over fences on Tuesday, but on Thursday she had two run outs.  Other than those she was a good girl, but she's still going through the growing pains of having to jump like a grown up.

I don't think she realizes she's strong enough to jump like this yet, but she's starting to get it.  There's a light at the end of the tunnel as the good jumps start to consistently outnumber the bad.

Tomorrow I get to go groom/spectate/hopefully videotape for stadium and cross country.  Hopefully Fiona will be in the mood to play.  She usually does very well at UNH and really enjoys their cross country courses.  My fingers, toes, and occasionally eyes will be crossed.  She's due to have a good outing after all of the hard work she's been doing.

Same goes for my poor trainer.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

If at first you don't succeed . . .

Buy another bit.

Fiona's new jumping rig has been dubbed her 'war bridle'.  It does look pretty intimidating when you first see it.

She's now the proud owner of a Myler combination bit (with the low port snaffle mouthpiece, for those that know what I'm babbling about).  While she was in Aiken, my trainer tried her in a couple rigs.  When I got down there, I tried some combinations of my own.  Neither of us liked any of the results we were getting.  She would lock on and take off or pop her head up enough that you couldn't see where you were going.  A lever noseband and running martingale made her rideable, but you definitely had the feeling that you needed more bit and that control was iffy.  She was fighting us and not happy.  The waterford combined with a flash was my go-to bit, but it was only somewhat better.  The princess would pop her head and fight, which is a scary feeling going into a fence, or just pull straight through it.  Without the flash, she would open her mouth wide enough I could see her tongue flapping about.

We needed some leverage, since she's a strong young lady and my trainer and I are not particularly big women.  However, using anything with a gag action was out since she will basically bring her head all the way back to yours to get away from it and run sideways in a borderline panic.  No good.  We tried a pelham and my mare lasted five minutes before she told me to get the heck off.  She would get either pissy or afraid if we went for anything more than the waterford, so nothing with a twist.

And I wonder why I own so many bits.  We've tried a lot of things with the princess.  It's kind of ridiculous when I sit and think about it. 

After her disastrous stadium round at Pine Top, someone suggested a Pee Wee bit.  A little research and I decided that wasn't the way I wanted to go.  I don't want her to disappear behind my hands after all of the work we put into convincing her that our hands were to be trusted, and a bit that narrow looked like it would be a problem.  However, that did get me started thinking outside of the box.  What I did remember was that she jumped quite calmly in her hackamore, I just couldn't turn well enough for stadium.  I saw some hackamore rigs combined with a snaffle, but they all had gag action.

During my hunt, I found the Myler combination bit.  I decided to actually order that one because it had the pieces I needed:  a snaffle mouthpiece that wouldn't crack her in her palate and she'd be comfortable carrying, nose pressure to encourage her to slow down without stressing, and leverage without gag action in case she's being . . . herself and the hackamore action is not enough.

Exhibit A:  Fiona being herself.  Whee.

Lo and behold, it's working.  We've ditched the running martingale for now, as this bit encourages her to flex at the poll rather than pop her head up in front.  Saying 'whoa' gets a downward response now, unless she's throwing a little temper tantrum.  It's quite nice, as I'm able to get in, make the change, and get out of her way.  I'm actually able to ride her much more softly now, as the fight is over and done with in the corner.  The real evidence that this is a good solution for her?

In every single one of the pictures from our stadium round, her mouth is closed.  Even the ones that I'd had to fight her to slow her down.  Being able to ditch the flash and the running martingale makes us both very happy and I think she's more relaxed this way.  I love being able to ride her with nothing tying her mouth shut in all phases. 

When the princess is happy?  Everyone is happy.

That's no to say we've gotten it all sorted out yet . . .

 We've still got plenty to work on.