Friday, January 25, 2013


It was so cold . . .

Ahem.  It was so cold . . .

How cold was it?

It was so cold --

We had to hire ducks to keep the horses' ears warm.

Okay, maybe it was just Fiona and maybe it had more to do with her being the most tolerant (and adorable) horse in the barn than it had to do with the cold, but it still happened.

I probably would have posted sooner except it took me this long to regain feeling in my fingers again.  My family is from Minnesota, I'm no wimp, but damn it's been cold out.  There's nothing like showing up for a lesson and seeing that the wind chill is -6* Fahrenheit to make you long for summer.  Single digit temperatures are not my friend, especially when it goes on for multiple nights in a row.

Understandably work has been light and handled very carefully.  Coolers, quarter sheets, tacking underneath blankets, all sorts of shenanigans to keep the horses warm and comfortable.  Thank you, every deity known, for the indoor arena.  I was tempted to give the princess the time off but she got the weekend off due to me getting a stomach virus and I guess she was starting to be a handful around the barn.  My trainer's head girl nicknamed her the Red Stallion after seeing her rearing in turn out a couple times.  Sharp drop in temperature, increase in wind, lack of work, and a TB mare.  Yeah, I was hauling my butt out in the sub zero temps to make sure that her brain and body were occupied for awhile each day.  She's much happier when she's in work, even if she does look very indignant when the blankets come off.

Or the duck hat goes on.

Progress has been limited but it's there.  Long walking warm ups have us working hard on moving her off of my leg without resistance and me learning to relax and let her lift her back.  She can't lift her back if I'm bracing against her.  My desperate attempts to sit deep have actually gotten in the way and I'm now being coached on how to soften my seat without losing the ability to sit.  The new visual is that Fiona is a basketball and that I need to dribble her.

Yeah.  I'm dribbling my horse with my butt.

Dressage is just weird, guys.  I don't know if anyone else got the memo, but I'm really starting to realize just how weird it is.  I am now mumbling 'dribble dribble dribble' each time I ask Fi to collect and rebalance.  I thought eventers were crazy, but no.  Dressage riders are way, way worse.  You have been warned.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The psychology of the chestnut TB mare

It's interesting discussing Fiona with a new trainer, particularly one that's been around long enough to see her for more than an hour.  He's also heard enough stories about her that I'm sure he formed some opinions even before meeting her or seeing her jump.

Of course I gave him my version of her history.  A mare that showed great potential in her first year, hit a road bump while in Aiken, then recovered for another solid season before completely shutting down on us.  The jumping problem wasn't sudden or even totally unexpected if you go through her history.  A stop here, a problem there, slowly building up to her getting sick and deciding that she'd had enough.  Once she started stopping, the confidence was gone for both sides of the equation and the whole house of cards fell down.

He has a theory. 

The first year was just Fiona and the fact that she's a smart, athletically talented mare.  It was so easy for her and she didn't need to worry about me too much. I was just the passenger and she allowed me to pick the fences.  At Beginner Novice, she could get away with that.  When things got more difficult, she quit.  Watching her on the flat and watching her jumping, his analysis is that she's a worrier that never learned to actually accept my aids.  It's her way or she panics.  This goes for both the flat and the jumping, it's just more obvious when she's jumping.  On the flat, it's her going above the bit and fighting a difficult request.  When jumping, she cuts out and refuses to go near a fence.

Fair enough.  That actually holds with the overall patterns when I go back through my previous entries.  If I push her for a more difficult lateral movement, she resists by rushing and avoiding the bit.  When I was having trouble containing her, she would jump anything.  When we pushed the matter of her taking the jumps in a controlled manner (meaning controlled by the rider), she quit. 

Everyone is very cautious now when it comes to Fiona's future.  The winter trainer likes her, even mentioned that he'd like her as a ride for himself, but as he said, 'no guarantees'.  She may jump again in our next lesson, or she may quit again.  He thinks she can recover enough to event again at the low levels.  Eventually.  In his eyes, she seemed to enjoy her jumping exercises so long as she felt free and like I was on the same page as her.  Hold her and she panics, thinking she can't do it.  Let her go, give her some confidence and trust, and she's ready to go.

In some ways it's a validation.  In other ways, it's a wake up call.  It's hard to look back at her first year and dismiss it as just Fiona being talented enough to do it on her own.  It's hard to not take it as a slight against my work, even though I know that's not what anyone means.  It's a validation in that he saw her jump, with my warning that she didn't enjoy it, and disagreed with me.  He saw a mare that enjoyed the variety so long as she felt that she was free to do her job.  With a few repetitions, she gained more confidence.  Knowing that she would be allowed to jump as she felt she needed to and the fact that she was being ridden forward seemed to be enough.

But at the same time, he cautioned me that she needs a serious ride.  This is her job, not a game.  That was a hard pill to swallow, but it was proven to me right there in the ring.  When I was firm and crisp with my expectations, she settled more.  Lavish praise, yes, but she had to complete the exercise when it was put in front of her.  No skittering allowed, no stepping to the side, none of that.  I thought I was firm, but I can see now that I've been babying her a bit.  As he put it, she's not an amateur ride, so I need to approach her in a professional manner.  She's my friend on the ground, but not when I'm riding her.  When I'm riding her, she is my teammate but I'm the team captain.

That's a hard, hard view for me to take.  It could take months for me to shift to that professional view point that I was once capable of, but with the evidence shoved in front of my face, I can't ignore it.

He said that you need a horse smart enough to take care of herself, but dumb enough to do something as inherently silly as stadium jumping.  It's possible that she's not dumb enough for this.  I guess there's only one way to find out.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


The good news is that all of these shenanigans mean that I've always got something to write about.  Two and a half years of posting, and I've still got commentary. 

There's the usual horse stuff, like the fact the Princess has started shedding already.  It's kind of ridiculous when I'm driving through a winter advisory to get to the barn and I end up covered in hair.  She needs to look around while she's in turn out and realize that she still needs that hair and should leave it attached to her body.  Six inches of snow on the ground and I'm coughing up hair balls after grooming her.

Then there's the usual training stuff, like her dressage lesson on Monday.  Our dressage trainer is back for the winter so we're getting out butts kicked back into shape.  You know you've had a good dressage ride when your abs ache the next day.  Since the focus was on Fiona lifting her abs in order to engage her back, she was probably sharing in my pain.  Her junior rider commented on how nice and supple she was the next day.  We even got to use the 'c' word!  It's collection, guys, keep focused.  Yes, we started talking about getting Fiona to be truly collected and accepting of the aids.  I was so proud of her.

We also had to discuss the fact that I have a seat and it's useful for more than sitting on.  Who knew?

And then there's the special Fiona stuff, like our jumping lesson tonight.  And the fact that it actually went really well.

Damn it all to hell.

It wasn't like we did anything radical or new.  We did rearrange her gear a bit so she was jumping in a French link snaffle, a flash noseband, and a running martingale.  I also added a pair of ear plugs to take off the edge that she gets from hearing poles falling and other horses jumping.  Nice part is that my friends who participate in cowboy mounted shooting were able to give me a pair of earplugs to try and Fiona didn't mind them at all. 

The winter trainer had the same general idea as my regular trainer, but slightly different application.  We focused on getting her up in front of my leg and then managing her behavior on the other side.  Fiona hesitated at the first ground pole, but the focus on getting her in front of my leg had her confidently going forward over the cross rails after that.  It was nice.  She really seemed to be happy and confident once we were rolling.  She was still exploding on landing, but it toned down with repetition and wasn't bad for her.  We did try some different things like settling her down by whoaing with just one rein.  That was hard to manage, I really struggled, but it did seem to keep her from feeling trapped.

The important part was that Fi seemed to be confident and forward.  She didn't look stressed, scared, or unhappy.  She enjoyed the lesson.  Damn it.

So now what?  I agreed that our next private jumping lesson would be another jumping lesson.  If she doesn't enjoy what we're doing, we'll stop.  There's no pressure, since I don't think of her as an eventer now, but so long as she's happily enjoying these cross rail lessons, I don't see any reason to stop.

I think my mare just likes to watch me twitch.  Time to switch to Cosmos.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

First impressions

It's a universal truth for horse people:  compliment your horse and they will immediately prove you wrong.

We met our new instructor for the winter yesterday.  He's a nice guy and he asked about Fiona's history.  I said she was going Novice, but she's not jumping due to some serious issues.  I also said she's a doll to ride on the flat and very nice.

Big mistake.

Right after I said that, Fiona decided to launch herself over a ground pole that happened to be in our way and take off like a bat out of hell, shaking her head all the way down the long side.  To be fair, she had two days off before that lesson so a sudden burst of energy wasn't all that surprising.  That doesn't change the fact that the instructor has dubbed her 'the firecracker'.  Sigh.

But he had some really interesting feedback on her, specifically about her lopsidedness.  She tends to hang on the left rein and disappear on the right.  I've focused on getting her off the left rein, he suggested that the actual solution was getting her to accept the right rein.  It was difficult and she did not particularly enjoy the matter being pushed, but she looked and felt really awesome after I held the right long enough for her to settle.  The lesson went really well and I think this instructor is going to get along with us well.

He did ask about the jumping, since he was really kind of smitten with her.  He kept stepping back and looking at her and saying 'she's so nice'.  I told him that she's got a major mental hang up on stadium and that I'm not planning to compete in eventing anymore.  He cocked his head to the side and said he likes these kind of horses.  He likes trying to figure out what's going on.  Then he asked if, in our private next week, he could see her jump just in case he sees something he knows.  I cautiously said yes, but with the understanding that I won't push her.  He's an entirely new viewpoint and I almost feel like it would be insulting him to refuse him the chance to even see her jump.  He also mentioned hopping on her himself, and I'm just too curious about what he would feel.

I won't jump her until that lesson and I'm going into it more as an interesting exercise than anything.  I am not changing my opinion on jumping her in competition, but I would like to find the cause enough to be able to do ground poles.  It's embarrassing when I have to carefully walk her over poles and guard against an explosion.

Was it a moment of weakness to agree?  Probably.  No, I'll be honest with myself, absolutely.  It just seems so harmless to let him see what I'm up against.  After all of the pros that have seen her and shrugged their shoulders, I doubt he'll see anything.  But I'll let him see the princess in action.

I'm so weak.

Sunday, January 6, 2013


Back in college, I partially dislocated my left hip.  If anyone hears me grumping about my 'bad hip', that's the one I'm talking about.  At the time I was an uninsured student and options were pretty thin for something that wasn't life threatening (and didn't get me out of classes).  I ended up stretching in a desperate attempt to get my hip working again.

The pain when it went back into place as stunning, but the relief afterward?  Pure bliss.  All of a sudden the pressure and pain was gone.  Everything was back in its place.

That's what it felt like today when I was riding Fi bareback, working on her shoulder in to the left.  It took a couple days, since she's been jumping every ride for months, but she has settled down.  It wasn't until she down shifted and let me put pressure on her on the flat that I noticed how wound up she's been over the past weeks.  She didn't overreact to a minor correction, accepted the contact, and gave me a couple steps of real shoulder in.  She even let me sit, which was great because I didn't have any stirrups and I'm just too out of shape to post without stirrups for an entire ride.

I should work on that.  But later.  That's the joy of being an adult, I can always push off the no stirrup work.  My trainer let's me get away with that.

Somewhere between the lateral work and the canter to halt transition with no fuss, we both had a big sigh and relaxed for the first time in quite awhile.  No pressure, no worries about chaos ensuing or refusals, just a working session that she could understand and was comfortable with.

I also came to the realization that I'm done with the grieving.  I had a lovely wallow in my misery that included lemon drop martinis, but I'm done with that now.  It is what it is and I'm still very lucky.  There are plenty of riders that would give anything for a sound, talented horse that they could ride whenever they wanted.  I'm not going to worry about what happens next until April.

I've had a couple offers for horses to jump so I don't get out of shape, including an offer to borrow the Jumping Machine.  We get along fabulously, so it's far from a hardship.  I think this winter is going to be a good one.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


Everyone's got their limits.

I had a jumping lesson today, the last one before my trainer heads off to Aiken.  After my previous ride where Fiona blew through the hackamore and snaffle like they weren't there, I put her waterford bit back on.  I need brakes, damn it!  I know, I'm odd.  We went into the ring and she warmed up well.  The only thing I picked up was her anxiety level going up when the other horses in the ring started to jump.

When I jumped her, she bombed off like a freight train.  I told her absolutely not.  Geeze, mare.  Wash, rinse, repeat.  About the same time she realized she couldn't do the jump at whatever pace she wanted, she quit on us.  She wouldn't jump the little vertical, the little cross rail, she even stopped at the poles on the ground.

We were all the way back to step one, four months ago.

I went and got her hackamore to make sure that wasn't the issue.  We warmed up again and I presented her to the poles on the ground.  She stopped dead.  I had to go back and forth for ten minutes to get her over the poles on the ground consistently.  But now she felt good, so we pointed her at a cross rail.  Maybe 12 inches.

She wouldn't go near it.

I've been working on this for four months, working with the vet, the saddle fitter, my trainer, other trainers, and anyone that would help.  At the end of the four months, I have a mare that will inconsistently jump little jumps.  We wouldn't accept this from a baby, much less a mare that's got five completed Novice competitions under her belt.  There's a certain point when you have to look at the situation and say 'enough is enough'.

I put Fi's jumping gear away today.  Not her saddle, since it's the only one I have, but everything else was tucked away.  She doesn't want to do that job, and I'm done trying to force the matter.

I cried like a baby right there in the ring when my trainer and I started talking about the options and whether or not Fi would be happier with a dressage home, since I really do want to event.  I'm not ready to make any real decisions, but it's out there now.  There are homes for chill First Level dressage horses that are also bomb proof trail horses and can handle the crowds at Equine Affaire.  She's only ten and awfully pretty and such a good girl.

For the next couple months, I'll be focusing completely on her dressage.  We need to get those First Level 2 and 3 tests polished up and ready for competition.  My trainer is perfectly comfortable with her staying on as my dressage horse and letting me ride other horses for my jumping lessons.  I'll just have to see how we settle in to this new reality.  It's going to kill me to groom and help for all these events and know that there's no chance of me participating.  It might make both of us happier if she finds a dressage/pleasure/HUS home and I find a new eventing partner.  It's hard to wrap my head around that thought right now, but it's there now.

I wanted my 200th post to be happy and fun, but such is the way with horses.