Thursday, November 29, 2012

Class clowns

 Yup, that's us on jumping weeks.  Class clowns, sitting in the corner with our dunce caps on.

Not too long ago, Fi and I could keep up with just about any lesson on jumping week.  Now?  I move around my lesson time to find a class that's doing cross-rails.  It's easier on the trainer if she doesn't have to move between 3' verticals and little 12" X's.  But we've made solid progress since our last lesson a week ago and I felt more confident going into today's lesson.  I only hyperventilated a little when I realized that the class had been rearranged and I was in with a couple of Novice horses and riders.  Best laid plans of mice and men and all that.

It helped that I knocked off those first couple jumps before the trainer came in.  I get nervous when I'm being watched.

Between the hackamore, the grab strap, my running around like a fool, and the bag of sugar cubes, Fi's getting her confidence back.  My trainer was thrilled with her calmer attitude and pointed us at some 2' verticals and even a couple of 2' oxers.  Fi didn't bat an eyelash and trotted over them as mannerly and confident as she's ever been.  Woohoo!

Of course, we're halting and walking between fences still, but having her jump a two foot oxer with loops in the reins was a huge, huge accomplishment.  The reasonably polite stop after the fence was also a big accomplishment.  No mouth gaping and head tossing.  My trainer announced we were done with that and we made our escape before the bigger fences and other horses jumping could key the princess up.

The trainer is thrilled with the progress and wants us to keep marching on as we have in the last week.  She said that it was the first time in awhile she's seen Fi's face so calm and confident.  She was almost, dare we say, eager?  Maybe, maybe.

This means loops in the reins in front of the fence, positive encouragement at all times (no punishment allowed), a grab strap to make damn sure I don't take back on my approach, and a hackamore.  It also means running with my mare a lot.  I tried lunging her over some ground poles to save my ankles from all of that running but the lack of boundaries fried her brain.  She'll run with me anywhere and over anything, but on her own?  Nope.  She has always borrowed the confidence of her rider and she's not ready to handle obstacles without support.

The saddle fitter was also out.  The jumping saddle passed with flying colors, as always, but it had some ripped lacing on the pommel so I sent it off for repairs.  It's 8 years old now, it was due to have some work done.  Unfortunately, the dressage saddle got a huge thumbs down.  Fi's back is now rather wide and the curvy, older style panels just aren't going to cut it.  The saddle fitter's exact words when I put it on Fi were 'Oh My God'.  We tried a couple models on her to see what works now and can you believe the saddle that fit her best was the one that Dorkzilla goes in???  This mare is NOT a pure Thoroughbred.  A lot of speculation has gone on about her back end as she's filled in and increasingly the jury says that she's part Quarter Horse.  Just the way her hip is put together reminds me of some HUS horses I've met.  They're 7/8's TB, but still registered as Appendix Quarter Horses.  She is a bit downhill, and the way that neck ties into her shoulders . . .

So, if anyone's got a Niedersuss Symphonie lying around, it looks like I'm in the market.  17 1/2 seat, medium tree, petite flaps (that's so damn embarrassing).  The old Passier is being sold off.  Damn that mare and her expensive (but really good) tastes.  I'm probably going to have to buy this saddle new to get the petite flap.  I'm currently without any saddles with the only one that fits her being repaired and am having to beg/borrow/steal for lessons.  I have a ride/critique/ride this Sunday for my First Level 3 test.  I'll be stealing my friend’s Toulouse for that ride.  I also suspect I'll be doing a lot of bareback work.  It should be good for me.  I got a book by Mary Wanless as a gift and I'm really hoping to improve my position this winter.  The lack of a saddle should help me on my way.

Hey, I'm trying to see the silver lining in all of this.

Monday, November 26, 2012


I've heard a lot of horses being described as 'complicated'.  I was watching one of my rented DVDs that was narrated by Lucinda Green about the top 20 eventing horses up to the mid '90s.  While some were praised as being forgiving, kind, well mannered chaps, there were others that were described as 'complicated'.  It sure wasn't a compliment.  Of course, being complicated is acceptable when they're jumping around Badminton or Burghley. 

I'll never get over the images of Murphy Himself just leaving strides out everywhere with Ian Stark just hanging on for dear life and trying to make any of the steering or brakes work.  I almost feel like I can sympathize some days when my princess decides she's going to do it her way and you need to just shut up and hang on.

Fi is complicated.  I've dodged that title for a long time, but my trainer has been pretty blunt as of late.  Fi is a worrier that will sometimes try so hard that she stresses herself out and just has to mentally check out.  It's not mean or nasty, she just can't handle situations where she doesn't think she's going to get it right.  While she's a saint on the flat with a justified reputation for being a rock steady trail horse, jumps worry her.  Ground poles worry her.  She's got a little switch in her head that flips and she goes from being a sensible, clever mare to being a panicked fire breathing dragon.  This is why she's not really an ammy ride.  She's so nice and calm and sensible until she's not.

Our jumping lesson on Friday was so bad it was all I could do to not cry.  Lunging at fences and bolting afterward, completely refusing to go near the itty bitty bounce, just not at all rideable.  I was ready to just quit and go back to her stall and never put the jumping saddle on her again.  At the end we managed to settle her enough to do a decent round of crossrails, but it was far from a success.  I had no choice but to hit the brakes hard with her just to avoid an accident.  Of course, that stresses her out.  Coming into fences feeling like she can't power up just makes her panic more, but I can't release because she's dangerous like this. 

On Sunday, with the ring all to myself, I decided to try something new.  All the classical stuff sure wasn't working.  Circles and transitions and grids and all the recommended stuff just makes my mare into a shaking, stressed out wreck.  Time to think outside of the box.  On went the hackamore and I loaded up my pockets with treats.  Fiona clearly can handle jumping without me (as seen by jumping out of the dang ring), so let's see what can be done to get her to be calm about jumping with me on board.  I set the fences down to about 10" high verticals. 

I wish there had been a video camera.  This was probably a riot.

I then proceeded to run and jump next to Fiona.  This is why they had to be verticals, so there was enough room for both of us to fit and still have the jump low enough for me to get my chubby human butt over.  The first five or so she would stop dead, confused and unsure just like she is under saddle.  I would just wait on the other side and cluck to her.  When she bravely hopped over, she got a treat.  Wash, rinse, repeat.  I knew when she'd settled because she would trot along next to me, jump, canter about two strides, then stop next to me for her treat.  The best part was that the reins were completely floppy the entire time.  All of that ground work paid off.  Fiona knows she's supposed to stay right with me, shoulder to shoulder.  She knew exactly what she had to do and that she could do it right.  That, and I had cookies.

I ended up running with her through a little course and managed it without falling on my keister.  I was just as proud of that as anything, my ankles aren't exactly the strongest.  I was wheezing by the time I finally got on.  Running in an arena is hard work!  I let Fi trot around for a couple minutes on a loose rein to see what we had to work with.  Some transitions to make sure she was aware it was a hackamore day and then it was time to test the results of my positive reinforcement training.  At the walk, I turned her toward one of the verticals.  I left loops in the reins, didn't put any leg on, but clucked a bit.  She picked up a trot, hopped over the fence, and cantered off calmly.  When I asked her to stop, she halted promptly and reached around for her treat.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

I had one refusal when I turned her to a little oxer.  She didn't expect it, but when represented, she hopped over calmly enough.  She started to key up, but working on something else for awhile helped to bring her back down.  She did give me a flier when I jumped one fence and she locked onto the next.  I didn't want to drag her off so I let her go.  The distance was funky with the fences so little and with her trotting in, so she left a stride out.  Hey, she didn't waver or quit and stopped nicely afterward.  I count that as a win! 

So this may be the answer to the root problem of Fiona getting tense over jumping.  It's been turned into a game, no punishments allowed.  Loose reins so it's her choice to go over and the speed is her choice as well.  I'm just along for the ride and to pick out the jumps.  And hand out the cookies.  This won't work later when the courses are complicated, but I'll never get to the complicated courses if I don't lock this in.  I expect to be at this for at least a month, if not two.  She's got to have it hammered into her little TB brain that this is easy and fun and nothing to worry about.

I'm going to get really fit this winter if I have to spend months running courses with her at the start of my rides.  Should help with the amount of turkey I've been eating.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


I'm getting too old for this falling off thing.  Seriously.

Is this the face of a mare that will spaz, fall over, and take off?
Yes, yes it is.

Fi had a couple days off after her adventures at Equine Affaire.  I had school work and then my husband got rear-ended.  This has us with one car between the two of us and cost me another day at the barn.  With Fi, that pretty much doesn't matter.  She takes days off in stride.

It was cold, brisk, and there was a wound up TB gelding attempting to jump when we went down.  Attempting being the key word, he was taking fliers and bucking and generally being a handful.  Fi was in her hackamore since my goal for the day was to ride with as little hand as possible.  The hackamore usually keeps me out of her mouth.  We warmed up nicely, just the occasional head toss when she was told to move off my left leg.  She demonstrated her little Western jog, maintaining it off of just my seat and legs.  I loved it.

The oopsie moment came when I was going along the rail and the TB jumped the jump right next to us.  He landed and exploded next to Fiona.  Fi exploded alongside him, half-rearing and trying to bomb off.  I rode through it and kicked her on.  As we turned back across the ring, she went off again.  This time, I lost my balance.  It happens to everyone eventually.  I realized I was in a bad spot and decided to bail.  I remember kicking free of my stirrups and trying to grab her mane, but at the same time she started to go up again.

I once had a horse flip over on me.  He reared up and flipped over backwards.  I managed to bail and kick clear, avoiding serious injury, but it's not the kind of thing you forget. 

As soon as she started to go up past a half rear, I went for her mane so I wouldn't pull her over but missed.  It just happened too fast.  I'm pretty sure the hackamore is why she hit the ground next to me.  I let go of the reins but it was too late.  She didn't flip over, but she did lose her balance and we both ended up on the ground.  Fortunately I kicked free with plenty of time, so I just landed next to her.  She went down very softly.  I'm quite sure she was trying to avoid landing on me and she didn't get up until I'd already pushed myself to my knees.

Unfortunately, being Fiona, once on her feet she took off for the barn.  When in doubt, she goes to her safe place.  Now this is where it gets interesting.  There were a couple ways to get out of the ring.  She could:

a) Go through the open gate that was right there
b) Go over the Novice sized coop that was next to the open gate, the one she has jumped many times in lessons
c) Go over the fence that goes around the ring that's about 3'6"

Yeah, she jumped the fence.  Whacked it on the way over, since it was probably the biggest thing she's ever jumped, but she gathered herself up and jumped it surprisingly nicely.  I ran after her, chasing her all the way up to the barn where I found her hanging out with some working students that heard her tearing up from the ring.  Being the princess, she was completely calm and had waited at the entrance of the barn for someone to come get her.

I wheezed over to check out my girl.  Since she fell, we had to go over every inch of her.  We did find where she'd scraped the front of each of her hind fetlocks, probably while leaping out of the ring.  The left was pretty minor, the right was bleeding but shallow.  I was really thankful she had her boots on, so the only damage was below her boots.

I walked her back down to the ring so we could get back to work.  I passed the TB that had been jumping on my way.  The rider said she'd had more than enough excitement for one day.  That made two of us.

I remounted and Fi went back to work like nothing had happened.  That's the princess for you.  Exactly one minute of chaos, followed by going back to work like a little angel.  My trainer commented on the fact that Fiona chose to jump out of the ring, rather than go out the open gate just ten feet over.  We also discussed the fact that she was so organized about it.  We've decided that she'll be doing some free jumping in the future.  If part of the issue is having a rider around, we can work on that.

Fortunately I've got nothing more than a couple sore muscles to show for today's adventure.  Every once in awhile Fiona has to remind me (and everyone else) that there's a reason she's not considered amateur friendly.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Super star

The super star

Signs that your horse may be a super star:

 - She goes out for a quick trail ride in the woods after being ridden only once in the last five days.  During this trail ride, she has a brisk canter around the pond before going back to walking on the buckle.

 - After the trail ride, she heads to the ring to have a nice dressage school while dodging small ponies with their beginner passengers.

 - She is loaded up, alone, and hauled off to the Eastern Exposition Center without a problem.

 - She stays for the night, alone, and the next morning your neighbors comment on how polite and friendly she is.  She eats everything and lays down to sleep.

 - She heads into a small ring set up in the vending area with four horses she doesn't know for a one and a half hour clinic without batting an eyelash.

 - She handles miniature horses (in a tie dye sleazy) being lunged, big horse drawn carriages, reiners, slamming overhead doors, and even some dressage stallions hitting on her with nothing more than the occasional incredulous stare.

That, in summary, was Fi's weekend.  And yes, that means she is a super star.  Our clinic at Equine Affaire was in a rather small ring set up along the side of the vending area.  There were bleachers on two sides, and despite the early time, there were a lot of spectators.  The princess walked into the ring with wide eyes, followed by craning her head every which way, trying to see everything that was going on.  Every time she got a long rein, she would turn her head toward the crowd to check them out.  She was so social that she would stop and reach over the top of the rail to visit with anyone nearby.  I suspect she was checking to see what kind of snacks they had.

The actual clinic was pretty quiet.  Fi was really good, so I was working hard on my position.  I got some good tidbits, specifically around breathing and hip movement, to work on.  I wish we'd been in a typical clinic environment so the clinician didn't have to play to the crowd so much, but I really enjoyed the clinic.  I think it was worth hauling Fi out for, both for the experience and for the work on my position.

Now we can call the 2012 season done.  Out with a bang instead of a whimper.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Welcome back

I wish my horse could speak English.  Even if it was just for five minutes so I could ask her 'what the heck do you want to do with your life?'.  It would be so much easier than trying to interpret her responses to things.

It doesn't help that she's ridiculously complicated.  After my jumping clinic that was a borderline disaster, I was ready to just put the jumping saddle in storage.  What's the point in pushing it?  She doesn't want to do it, it's not fun, why bother?

But I wasn't going to skip the Myopia hunter pace.  No way.  We've gone to that every year that I've had her.  It's like a rite of fall, a last hurrah before hunkering down for winter.  Besides, I could skip the jumps and Fi is always up for a gallop in the woods.

I trotted her over the first fence to see what she thought of it and she seemed a bit surprised.  She wiggled, but popped over.  It was the first actual jump for her in two months.  The second jump she said 'no way'.  A two foot stadium style fence that she could jump with her eyes closed and instead she dove out hard to the left.  I took that as an indicator that this was not to be and just skipped the next couple fences.  At least my non-jumping horse was still good for long gallops in the country side.

Then we took a wrong turn (one of several) and ended up on a part of the hunter pace where there wasn't a gap.  The log jump stretched all the way across.  It wasn't even two foot tall, so I trotted the princess up to it.  Easier to try to jump it than go around.  Cutting out wasn't an option, so I didn't guard against it.  Just pointed and waited.  Lo and behold, she jumped without a wiggle.

And then she jumped the next one.  And the next.  Then she grabbed that damn bit, the ears came up, and some switch in her head flipped.  I knew that feeling, when the entire front end lifted and she started snorting like a run away freight train. 

The princess was back.

Myopia Hunter pace 11-4-12

Jump from the canter?  No problem.  Skinny jump?  No problem.  Beginner novice coop?  No problem.  Brakes?  Eh, a bit of a problem, but that's just business as usual.  I presented her to the fences, gave her a check, then just let her go.  She jumped with her knees to her eyeballs, cracking her back and looking for the next one.  All of a sudden, this was fun for her again.

I kept her to Beginner Novice fences, skipping the Novice sized ones.  I didn't want to over face her, even if she was begging for the chance.  Better to have a really fun experience and get her confidence back.

I don't know yet if this will translate to stadium, as the only one she refused was a stadium style fence, but she's clearly not ready to retire from cross country.  It took a hundred yards to pull her up at the end of the hunter pace.  She was so darn proud of herself, jigging and prancing while I tried to turn in my number. 

It would be so much simpler to retire her, but no.  That was the outing we both needed to keep plugging away at this and keep trying to figure out what she needs.  Because clearly, judging by my aching shoulders and the pictures of her lit up like a Christmas tree, she wants to be an eventer.