Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Dead of winter

This is my least favorite part of the year.  We're slogging through winter, 2/3rds of the way to spring, but February sprawls in front of us: cold, icy, and seemingly never ending.  All of our ridiculous temperature swings have settled into a steady, below average cold that turned our slush into endless ice.  I look out onto the icebox and have zero urge to go outside.

But that doesn't change anything so far as Theo is concerned.  While cold, it's in the twenties during the day so it's warm enough to safely ride.  We have an indoor.  I have no practical reason to not go riding.  Theo needs work, especially with the alfalfa in his system, and he's not going to get work if I sit at home in my fleece pjs.  I know I'll be happy to see him and that it's good for both of us.  I just feel incredibly unmotivated and whiny about it.  Another day going round and round in the sandbox.  I think Theo shares my opinion.

So when temps went all the way up to 36*, we rebelled.  We demanded our freedom!  We ran from the endless grind and dared to travel where we had never roamed before.  I rode in the snow.

It seems crazy, but I have never ridden in the snow in my life.  Yes, I have lived and ridden in Minnesota, Massachusetts, South Dakota, and New Hampshire, but I've never ridden in the snow.  When it snows, I hide in indoor arenas.  With a history of show horses, I always feared slipping or stepping on something or otherwise ruining my horse by risking anything less than perfect footing.  This time, I looked at my sure footed, lazy ass horse with his borium studs and said YOLO.

I actually said YOLO.  I'm not proud of that.

I bundled up and wrapped us both up in his cooler to keep him warm.  Mi papi was confused by our sudden departure from the indoor and our trip down the road.  I usually don't walk down the road in the snow since the snow banks keep us from having a place to jump to if cars are dumb.  We turned on the trail and set out for a nice walk.

It wasn't entirely relaxing.  Several horses were shocked to see someone out on the trail and came rushing down to see what we were doing.  I was terrified, since Theo was standing on icy snow and I have that little phobia.  I got scared enough to start shaking and contemplate crying, but I stayed on and Theo ignored the stampede in favor of me stuffing cookies in his face.  We ended up walking around for about 40 minutes.  I was going to do our 30 minute walking loop, but found a tree down at 20 minutes in and had to turn around.  Between the studs, the balanced walking (stayed on at least a soft contact the whole ride), and the chill pace, we made it through our adventure with no slips or scares. 

It was a good choice.  We both came back feeling better about life.  Some quality time out in the fresh air was what we needed.  And now that everything is back to rock hard ice, it looks like we don't have a choice but to go back in the indoor.  But it's okay, I've got jumping and another bombproofing clinic to get us through the week.  And February's the shortest month, so surely it won't feel never ending.

No, I don't believe that.

Thursday, January 26, 2017


I had my third jumping lesson in seven days today.  It's mostly coincidence and the fact I had lessons to make up for with my trip.  But it did the job in making me feel like I'm starting to get my jumping legs back.  I know I'm getting there because the heating pad is back.  My poor thighs and hips.  My big old booty was up out of the saddle for about half of my lesson, including a solid five minutes of continuous work at the canter on a figure eight working on bending lines and changes of direction.  Theo was all about it and, in the moment, we felt great.  I actually had to halt him and set him back a bit since he was bidding to fences. 

Now?  Ow.  Everything hurts.  My left ankle is not enjoying my renewed interest in getting my heels down and using my ankles as shock absorbers.  Is there any joint on that side of my body that actually works?

But Trainer A mentioned to the junior that shares my jumping lesson that things were going to be getting technical for awhile in our lessons.  Theo and Catie need to work on the details that make rounds smooth and consistent as opposed to saying 'close enough'.  To which the junior turned, looked at me, and said 'I thought you did dressage?'.

I do!  But it appears I can't do anything half way.  A couple of hunter classes at a local show has me training in a way that lays me up on the couch.  And I have a dressage lesson tomorrow that will probably have me holding on to my poor aching abs as we work on getting some lift in the trot.  Okay, a lot of lift at the trot.  It's better, but he's not exactly floaty.  We need to develop enough self carriage to hold a true bend in the shoulder in.  Right now we can hold a consistent angle, but we need better bend through his rib cage and we won't get that until he's strong enough to pull some more weight off of his shoulders.  And keep his impulsion while doing it.  Second level is right there!  So close I can almost touch it.

But we were talking about my jumping lessons.

The point is that I am incapable of just doing something half way.  I am all in or nothing at all.  I'm not happy unless I'm going out to shows with something worth showing off.  I thought I could just flop around a hunter ring and giggle with my dressage pony but nope.  I'm now doing sets of trot without stirrups and rounds of half seat in my warm up.  Why exactly am I doing this?  What does it matter?  I'm not looking to rock the hunter world, I'll never do the A circuit again.  It's some 2'6" hunters and adult eqs to work on our confidence and to have some fun.  Most adults don't jump without stirrups ever, much less when it's not even their focus.  I'm not sure if this is some sort of personality short coming or what.  Trainer A has to keep reminding me that it's just for fun.  FUN.  Dressage can be where I'm a perfectionist, but the h/j stuff is just to give us some variety in life.  Not that she's discouraging my efforts to improve, quite the contrary, but the dressage and hunter worlds are so different.  Over focus on hunter stuff won't help my declared dressage goals.

It's going to be very interesting watching me try to make the two styles mesh after focusing so much on my dressage.  It's certainly changed the way I jump.  Theo and I took a crap distance to a vertical and pulled the rail.  I got a firm, sharp reminder from Trainer A that I am a dressage rider, damn it, and I WILL half halt before a fence and not let my horse fall on his face and run to a crap distance.  Which snapped me out of trying to perch and had me riding my horse up to a contact to the fence, which had us landing together and not in a heap, which gave us a lovely distance on the way out.  Go figure.

What will I do when my renewed jumping training starts to interfere with my dressage position?  I don't know.  Right now Trainer A is nailing me when I perch and float the reins, so I'm thinking it's going to be 'dressage' position and 'universal' position as opposed to a stylish hunter position.  Because she will not allow me to disconnect from his back.  And frankly, after feeling what it's like to make a fine tune adjustment coming into a fence with instant, willing results?  I don't want to go back to perch and pray, either.

Regardless of my inability to just do something for fun, the jumping really has helped with my ring sour pony.  It's late January and we haven't ridden outside in months.  I picked the reins back up after letting my classmate jump today and Theo actually jigged.  Theo!  The bum!  I still have to give him the occasional boot to tell him to keep cantering, but when going through a line or a course he's usually sitting right there on the bit with his ears pricked.  It translates to our dressage work because it's improving his fitness and his comfort with traveling that way.  At the end of our lesson when we really had the engine running, he gave me a long side with this round, almost lofty canter that made Trainer A say 'wow'.  He felt good and was powering along, almost playing with his front feet.  I was focusing on keeping him together so he didn't get any ideas on letting out some playful bucks, but Trainer A said it was gorgeous.

Our trot may always suck, but by golly, we can canter.  Maybe we'll do all right in the hunter ring.

Because I clearly can't just go in and have fun.  Seriously, Catie.  Stop it.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Identity complex

Poor Theo.  No one warned him that being bought by an adult amateur would end up like this.  It's a wild whirly gig of random things.  He never knows what's going to happen once the brushing and fawning over him part of the visit is over.  What tack will it be?  Where are we going?  What insane request will she have for me now?

Poor pony.  He's cute when he's quietly contemplating my death.

First I decided I needed to jump without reins or stirrups.  Theo went along with that and had the patience of a saint, as I mentioned in my last post.  After that ride, I figured he'd earned a day off and I took another step toward my winter goal of teaching Theo to go bridleless.

And there's my pretty pink rope halter.  It fit like a charm!  Just a little adjustment under his nose to tighten up the noseband (his face is actually a little bit delicate for an oversize fit) and we were good to go.  That's my PS of Sweden lead rope attached to the halter.  I got it with his show halter and the end is a leather loop to attach the snap.  I undid the loop, pulled off the snap, and relooped it on his rope halter.  Done!  And long enough to be looped around and act as very primitive reins.

It's a good thing Theo and I have worked on neck reining since steering with no bit or proper side pull is a bit tricky.  But with a bit of work, we were trotting and cantering around in a perfectly sane and controlled manner.  We made some students laugh by trying to get through cones set at pony sizes.  Theo's legs were just too long.  Once he had the idea, we were neck reining along like old pros.  He has some western trail horse in his background, I may not be the first person to hop on bareback with a rope halter.  I'll have to get video, my precious dressage horse jogging along in a rope halter.

Before everyone thinks I've quit dressage and will now be a bridleless, natural horsemanship hunter rider, we did the dressage thing, too.

Keeping papi from getting ring sour with all of this variety means that when I get on with a real saddle, my spurs, and some intent, he's more likely to pick up and show off.  He had some energy to burn on Thursday so I threw my tack on him to burn it off in a positive way.  He put on quite a show, stretching and snorting.  As Trainer A put it, he looks good with some extra energy.  Alfalfa is a wonderful thing.  Now to find the balance point between feeling that regularly and not getting unloaded.

So in one week, Theo did two serious dressage schools, two jumping lessons, two goofball rides, and one day off.  He seriously has no idea what we're going to do when I tack him up.  We may be working on his lengthen trot (still sucks) or we may be playing soccer.  He now has three completely different outfits for me to pick from and I can't help but think how fantastic he'd look in western gear.

Identity complex.  I'm giving him one.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Perfect trust

You know what's super hard?  Turning to three fences, letting go of the reins, and assuming that your horse is going to get you through to the other side safely.

I got my no reins/no stirrups jumping lessons today.  And despite what I expected, dropping the reins was much, much harder than dropping my stirrups.  I may be saying differently when I get up tomorrow, but in the moment, it was harder to let go of my control than my support.  Which makes no dang sense when you look at the horse in question.  Seriously, why would I worry about letting go of this horse?

Yes, he's a saint.  But when the time came to take my hands off of the reins and put them on my hips, I had to grab onto my vest to not put my hands back on the reins in the middle of the grid.  It wasn't about needing them for balance, it was about the frantic feeling that he couldn't do it without me!  But guess what?  He could and he did it over and over while I figured that out.  He never put a foot wrong.

We don't have video of my passes without stirrups since Trainer A wanted to keep a close eye on me in case I freaked or did something dumb.  Not Theo, we knew exactly what Theo was going to do.  The same thing he'd done the first twenty times through the grid.  Jump - one stride - jump - one stride - jump.  My first pass without stirrups was pretty terrible since it dawned on me that I hadn't jumped without stirrups in a long, long time and kind of panicked.  There was much clutching and praying.  By my last pass, Theo and I came in at the canter and popped through in a way that felt natural and comfortable.  The muscle memory is still there and I can still do one strides without stirrups.  Muscles were cramping at the end, but now I feel confident that I can jump without stirrups and not die in the process.  Go me!

I really can't say enough about what a saint Theo was for this lesson.  He was a little perplexed to start, but he figured it out very quickly.  My riding was pretty craptacular in a few passes so I made sure to have lots of extra cookies to keep him motivated.  And my Thinline pad to protect his back.  Not their slim model, the serious business protect his back from my ass model.  With my reins knotted up and abandoned, his mouth was perfectly safe.  He seemed to enjoy the lesson, using his back and neck more than usual.

Which, of course, means that I've been getting in his way with my hands when jumping.  Part of it was Theo figuring out that yes, he can do this without me balancing him.  Some of our first passes involved him getting on his face a bit because I wasn't there to help him.  Then he figured it out and managed himself while I grabbed mane and thought about keeping my heels down.  Once his footwork was down, every single pass was identical.  It doesn't get better than that for a position lesson.

It was like doing one of those trust falls.  I had to have that moment where I trusted that everything was going to be okay and let go.  It turned out to be a big confidence boosting moment for both of us.  We're both stronger than we thought.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

How To: Tie a rope halter

This is a bit of an odd one, but after spending a long night figuring this out, I figured I'd share my new found knowledge.  Mostly in the form of links to things I found that actually helped.

How to tie your very own rope halter!

What you'll need:

About 25 feet of polyester or nylon diamond braid rope, 1/4", preferably in pretty colors.  You can get this at any hardware store or on Amazon for cheap.
A ruler
A lighter
Beer, wine, or other booze of your choice.

Step one:

Pour your drink and clear out a space on the floor or at a table.  Flat space is critical for tricky knots.

Step two:

Pick the size of the halter you want so you know the dimensions.  Or measure a halter that's already fit to your horse.  Most of the online directions assume you're working with a 15.2 QH, so you might need to make some modifications.

Step three:

Start using these directions.  If you want a four knot halter, which has two extra knots on the nose to get your precious pony's attention, just add in two more double overhand knots between the knots in the first part of the instructions.  Just make sure the total noseband length is correct for your size when you're done.

When you get to the fiador knot part, the knot that goes under your horse's chin, pour another drink and watch this video.

Don't try to do it off of the photos in the directions.  You will hate your life.  I pulled it off by having that video running and hitting pause frequently to make sure my knot looked like his.  Got it on the first try when I followed every move he made.  Failed three times trying to use pictures.

Then go back to the directions in the link and finish up your halter, using the dimensions you picked for your horse.

Step four:

Realize there's a reason people pay for these things and go shopping on Amazon.

Though in all honesty, I successfully completed my halter in two hours and that includes the time I spent completely taking it apart and starting over due to making it the wrong size.  And deciding I wanted four knots instead of two on the noseband.  After all of my restarts, I ended up tying that fiador knot about three times and it does get easier with repetition.

Behold, my rope halter!

And my kitchen tiles that are scheduled to be replaced, hello, 70's!

For those that are all about the matchy match part of riding, it is possible to create a matching lead rope.  I created this using a four strand round braid (hit Google, it's a common braid).  I started with two 24 foot strands of rope (doubled over to make four strands) and ended with about an 8 foot lead.

Check out the open stairs, I have the most 70's house ever

Don't do it.  Don't do it!  My hands were cramping so badly by the end and trying to manage twelve feet of rope while doing a square braid?  UGH.  It looks pretty, but I can't imagine trying to create the 14 foot training ropes I see attached to rope halters.  Do yourself a favor and buy a plain back rope.  This one is the length I needed to attach for use as a side pull or for non-lunging ground work.  Good enough for me!  Because ugh.  Still thinking about undoing it and just braiding it since it came out a bit thick.  Might need something stronger than beer to tackle that project again.

Mostly this was an arts and crafts project to keep me occupied and out of trouble on a boring winter night.  The rope was the kind the hubby uses to tie down stuff on his trailer, so he had fifty feet just sitting around unused.  You can buy fifty feet in a pretty color for $15, so it's technically cheaper than buying a pre-made halter.  But it's such a small savings, you'll probably want to just go out and buy one.

Though I do love the black and pink on Theo.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017


Before I even get started, a quick bit of level setting.

I have not done any type of equitation since 2005.  I have been an eventer on a bundle of TNT for several years.  In the past two years, I've been focused almost completely on dressage.  This post includes video of me jumping, focusing on my position.  I love constructive criticism, but anyone getting out of line will be told to bugger off.  My horse is not abused, I am not incompetent, I do not need to quit, I do have a clue, I have a great trainer that works with me a lot, and I will not give Theo to you because you think he clearly needs a better rider that can bring out his full potential and that beautiful savior is you.

Or, worse yet, I will give him to you, may the gods have mercy on your soul.

Get it?  Got it.  Good.

So I told Trainer A that I wanted to do some h/j stuff this summer since I'm the lone dressage warrrior at the barn and it seems silly to try to design a lot of campaigning around me, myself, and I.  She agreed whole heartedly, said she'd bring Miss Thang out to keep us company, and then gave my legs a look.  You know the look.  The one the trainer gives you when you know you just signed up for a lot of pain.  Because if I'm going to compete in that ring, we have work to do.

Ladies, gentlemen, and noble beings regardless of gender, I am going back to basics.  And it SUCKS.  Because after two years of enjoying jumping as my time off where having fun safely is the only goal, I've picked up some nasty habits.  These are piled on top of issues I picked up while in survival mode with Fi.  I only share these videos because I am an honest person and I see no reason to hide my flaws.  We all have them.  A month without lessons and almost two weeks off really didn't help me, either.  We were not gelling particularly well today, though Theo was his usual saint over fences.  Love, love, love this horse.  I'm up there doing the hokey pokey while figuring out how to ride like I've got a clue and he just keeps jumping.

So here they are, videos of Theo and I doing three bounces from the trot.

Trainer A took video since I'm such a visual learner.  And I have been directed to watch these and figure out what I need to do to fix my situation.  The upside is that I used to teach h/j kids, so when I see my goofy behavior, I can pretty quickly see where I need to make adjustments.

Point one, I needed shorter stirrups.  I actually shortened my stirrups up by a hole after these were taken and it did help with me snapping about like a poorly trained seal.  My battery died so we didn't get those passes.

Point two, I need to jump without stirrups.  My leg is weak and swinging.  While I've done lots of no stirrup work, most of it's been with a dressage mind set.  I haven't jumped without stirrups in a good long time.  I don't post without stirrups much due to my hip making weird sounds, but it's been good lately.  I must be getting stronger on that hip, so time to embrace my h/j roots and ditch my stirrups over fences.  I clearly have the horse for it.  Can you believe he's like this in the dead of winter?

Point three, I need to relearn what to do with my hands.  Because seriously, I was trying all sorts of crap up there.  Some of the passes are good and I don't touch his mouth, but I need to relearn how to make it smooth.  I need to jump without reins as well as jump without stirrups.

Point four, hours of half seat.  The muscles have atrophied. 

I am now doing what I should have done as an eventer:  learning to ride in two distinct ways and do them both correctly.  If I'm going to play in both arenas and be fair to my horse, I need to be able to jack up my stirrups and jump in a balanced way, then drop them down and really sit for the questions on the flat.  So Trainer A is signing me up for a course of jumping boot camp as well as keeping us honest on our dressage progress.  My pattern of two lessons a week is getting locked down and the intensity of my jumping lesson is about to get ramped up.  Not for Theo, he's already a saint.  Just for me.

I'm starting to think I really am a masochist.  Nothing else would explain my continued decisions to pursue things that I know are going to suck.  Half seat with no stirrups?  I'll be sleeping on the couch on the ground floor.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Nutrition update

Between Theo's changing work levels and the discovery that he has a touchy tummy, his food continues to be modified.  He moved over to Carbguard without a hitch and after his pop rocks, he's been happily hoovering everything in sight without trying to kick me in the knee when I brush his belly.  But the protein still wasn't where I wanted it, particularly when he's being asked to develop a lot of new muscle.  So what to do?  Bump up the grain again, use supps, change grain type?

I updated my grain tool to include calories to keep me in check.  Mi papi is a bit of an air fern.  This is where we started when I bought Theo:

A horse in moderate work is supposed to get about 25,000 calories, so he was a bit light on calories as well as fat and protein.  Especially high quality protein.  I put him on the Carbguard, which got us here:

Protein up 0.2% and fat up 0.8% while only increasing calories by 200.  Not bad.  But not where I wanted to be.  How much grain would it take to get him up to 10% protein?

6,000 more calories per day?!  I'd never get his saddle on him!  Assuming he didn't lose his pony mind.  Let's try another option:

This is the option I went with.  I've added two pounds of alfalfa to Theo's diet to up his protein while acting as a buffer for his delicate tummy.  He'll get one pound of alfalfa pellets with each grain feeding.  Since he's also getting 20 pounds of grass hay, I'm not worried about throwing things too far out of balance.  It also keeps his fiber up.  I like slow burn fuel.

He's currently only getting a half pound of alfalfa per feeding but now that I'm back in full time work, we'll add the other half.  So far, no problems.  He's happy, he's eating, and I'm spending less time kicking.  I haven't noticed any significant change in the way his girth fits, so the change in calories seems to be small enough to be managed with work.  He's up 2,140 calories a day compared to last year when I bought him, but his work load is up quite a bit as well.  Dressage-ing is hard work!

If he starts getting chubby, we'll be reducing the Carbguard and dropping the Omegatin while replacing it with Sunshine pellets to get the most bang for the caloric buck.  Using Sunshine pellets, I can dial his calories all the way down to what he was getting last year while keeping his protein at 10.6%, though it does swing his starch up and his fat down.  Hopefully I can keep him where he's at.  He's shiny, happy, and not begrudging me the work I'm asking for.  Much.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Press play

Between the holidays, the weather, and my work trip to Las Vegas, I feel like my life has been on pause for the last month.  It's a weird sensation to look around and realize that all of the usually completely reliable parts of my life have been missing.

Viva Las Vegas!

 I haven't had a riding lesson since before Christmas due to a long list of reasons:  Trainer A actually took time off for the holidays (shocking, I know), then got a kidney infection, then it was 5* out, then I was in Nevada.  That means my last lesson was Dec 21 and my next on will be Jan 17.  That's almost a month without a lesson.  That doesn't even feel like reality.

A cold snap right before I left put me out of the saddle for the days leading up to my work trip.  I rode Jan 4th and then today, Jan 15th.  Eleven days without putting my butt in a saddle?  That's also crazy.

After a mix up, a reschedule, and finding out that my brand of contacts had been discontinued, I was in glasses from mid-December up until this weekend.  It felt so weird.  I've worn contacts since I turned 16.  My depth perception definitely suffers when I wear my glasses and it wasn't that great to start.  A month in glasses had a weird effect, I felt like I was getting ready for bed all the time.  I only wear my glasses at night.  It's also a pain riding in glasses.  I'm constantly shoving them back up my nose or dealing with them fogging up.

And finally, my car was out of commission for a couple weeks.  I was bumming someone else's car and driving the Behemoth.  That's always really disorienting, especially when you've owned the same car for ten years.  I was hauling all of my horse stuff in and out of the house in a bag and couldn't leave anything in the car.  I got my car back last night with it's shiny new exhaust manifold and a pretty new inspection sticker.  The new exhaust does sound spiffy.  I can't even afford the expensive ramen right now, but that's okay.  My precious jellybean is back in action.

All of this occurred at the same time and that time happened to be the holidays.  So I wasn't working, driving my own car, able to tell how far away things were, and I wasn't taking lessons.  It felt like living in a strange haze, visiting some other person's life while my own was on pause.  I couldn't work on things like I usually do.

But today I hit play again.  I'm back in contacts, my trainer is healthy again, my car has a it's inspection sticker, it's normal temps out so I can work my horse as usual, and my work travel is over with for this year.  Tuesday my work days go back to the usual schedule without a looming summit to throw my day into chaos and I have my usual jumping lesson. 

Theo got some time off due to the cold, then played school pony so he could stay in work while I was gone and Trainer A was on the mend.  He was tossed to the teenagers and experienced adults to give them a change of pace.  I'm getting very positive reviews of his behavior, especially over fences.  When I rode him today, he felt like a million bucks.  He seemed to appreciate his mini winter vacation and change of pace.  I asked for some little stuff today and he was very happy to comply.  No spurs and only the occasional whip tap had him up and working.  Trainer A chatted with me briefly and she's eager to get us back to work.  No harm done, no ground lost, and it probably did us both some good to not grind away at the hard stuff for awhile.

Things are lurching back into motion.  We have a week of mild weather ahead of us and I intend to get us both back into the groove.  The spring shows will be here before we know it. 

Saturday, January 7, 2017


Theo and I got our first clinic of 2017 today.  Yay!  We had another round of winter weather, but I have the Behemoth and a couple inches of snow wasn't going to stop me from attending my bomb proofing clinic.

Today was a ground work lesson.  Not a surprise, only a fool takes a group of horses they don't know, in winter, and puts riders on them before throwing random things out.  Today she handed out rope halters and we worked on respect and attention.

It was really weird seeing my dressage pony in a rope halter.  I've used them before, but not with him.  I brought him down in a bridle since I couldn't find my chain shank, but rope halter worked better for the plan of the day.  And it was interesting.  The trainer is a Montana born and bred trainer that uses national horsemanship.  She's very big on manners on the ground.  Her first impression of Theo was me trying to pry my dressage whip out of his mouth.  Hahahahaha, I swear he's not a rude spoiled brat with no respect.  Honestly!

We worked on disengaging the hind legs.  The good news was that I've done this with Theo a million times and he was happy to turn like a top without me even touching him.  Then we started lunging a bit, making him change direction back and forth on the circle.  Poor papi, he was so confused by the change in direction.  As a school horse lunge pony, never changing directions on the lunge is a rule.  But once he figured it out, he was a gold star student.  The trainer had little to say about him since he just went to work, energy levels chill and chewing away.  He's very in tune with me and once he knew the game, he'd change direction off of a hand gesture.

As for the actual bomb proofing?  Theo was a riot.  He put everything in his mouth.  Walk over the tarp?  Grab it on the way over.  Walk over grain bags?  Pick it up and carry it back to mom.  Investigate a roping steer?  Try to take a chunk out of the wood frame.  He just didn't care, and since he wasn't getting a reward for just investigating (old hat for him), he decided to offer something more.  I can't argue with his courage and brains when he decides that the next step after touching the scary thing is to pick it up and bring it back.

Soccer ball?  Nothing.  Banging corrugated metal?  Nothing.  A little bit of a look since it was a strange sound, but he immediately reached out to check them out.  Theo already appeared to be respectful and bombproof, even standing ground tied while I swapped out blankets in the 17* weather.

But funny thing about experienced trainers.  They know how to spot a weakness.  I startled at the corrugated metal sound, so Theo eyed it.  The trainer noticed.  So at the end, while talking about the different horses, she made an example of Theo.  We were done, Theo was dozing, I wasn't paying much attention.  She went behind us, continuing to talk, and then slammed the soccer ball against the wall.

I jumped about five feet and Theo spun around, spooking for the first time in the two hour bombproofing clinic.  It was something she'd done five times while showing the soccer ball to other horses, but when it startled me, the both of us spooked.  Lo and behold, we were the perfect example of a pair where the horse takes confidence from the rider.  The rider gets spooked?  We're toast.

I enjoyed the clinic.  I do a lot of ground work with Theo, but it was the first time I've done a formal clinic on ground work.  It's also the first formal introduction I've had to natural horsemanship.  We did disagree on treats (she doesn't believe in treats at all and, well, we all know my stance), but we agreed to disagree.  Theo is so adapted to my method that she never even noticed him getting a treat.  He got several for being a very good boy in a lesson where the rules were very different.

Next clinic will include under saddle work and I expect her to bring out the big guns, since Theo and I weren't phased by anything we did today.  I think I'll pick up a rope halter for him to lunge in, I liked the way he worked in it.  Most of the time when I'm lunging him, I'm trying to get him to relax and stretch out without my interference.  The rope halter could work for that.  Also will work for my plot to ride him without a bridle.

But I was proud as punch when my horse was the gold star student, the demo, the unflappable.  He yawned and dozed and generally enjoyed a day of something completely different.  A cold, snowy day is a good day to play a totally different game.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017


Over the holiday break, I took my trusty little Yaris in for it's annual inspection.  I adore my Yaris.  It's the perfect size for me and can hold four bales of hay if I flip the back seat down and use the passenger seat.  It can also fit six teens, two adults, and one gassy dog when offering rides across a horse trial facility.  I call my Yaris AJ, the mighty jelly bean. 
 I've had this car for 10 years and 105K miles with no major repairs and only occasional maintenance needs.  Last year I got a new belt and battery.  That was a big year spending year for AJ.  Something was up with my exhaust (I'm not car savvy) last year, but it was patched and we went on our way.  This time, I knew I needed new tires.  No big deal, I knew that was coming, so we slapped on a new set of tires.  My husband pointed out that my right rear wobbled.  Guess what?  That wheel bearing had gone.  Needed to be replaced right away because that's not something you mess with.

I took the hubby with me to kill time.  We got pizza, shopped for furniture, and wandered the mall catching Pokemon.  I was trying out recliners when my cell rang.  You know it's bad when the mechanic asks if you're sitting down.  I used the power recline function, put my feet up, and braced for impact.

My exhaust manifold had failed.  It needed to be replaced.  OUCH.  AJ, you traitor!!!!  My total bill for tires, realignment, wheel bearing, and manifold hit $2K!!!  That's the size of a vet bill for lameness!!

So I thought about my balance, my savings, and my travel schedule.  I had the wheel bearing done (and the oil change, though I really don't think AJ deserved a spa day after that betrayal).  The manifold needed to be ordered, so I took my little jelly bean home to wait.  I leave for Vegas on Tuesday (omg, I should start planning for that), so my car will just sit until I get back.  That gives me another pay day to help absorb the costs.  So much for my head start on my show fund.

This also means that I can't legally drive my car this week.  It failed a state inspection for safety reasons.  Did you know that a failed exhaust manifold results in exhaust going into the passenger compartment?  Neither did I!  Might explain some of my road rage.  So how do I get to the barn?

Behold, the behemoth.

This is the truck my hubby bought over the summer to be our tow vehicle.  He uses it to haul equipment and a big, flat trailer.  He loves it.  His trailer is loaded up with all sorts of heavy equipment and he can still zip along on the highway like it's nothing.  It's set up to tow a gooseneck, so I'm starting to shop for my very own trailer.  At least I was before AJ turned on me.  Right now, this is my commuting vehicle.  The hubby let me use his Scion for a long drive yesterday, but he kind of needs his car so my only option to get to the barn is the behemoth.  It's a 3/4 ton crew cab monster.  I feel like I'm climbing Mount Everest to get into the thing.  The hood goes on forever and I feel like I have to stretch to see over the dash.

I'm going from a two door sub compact to a 3/4 ton truck.  I might as well be driving a tank.  I'm not very good at parking to begin with.  But on the flip side, I'll get in some practice with the truck before I start learning how to haul a trailer.  I've been practicing with the tractor and trailer I use to haul food and water out to the poultry at home.  I'm trying to learn how to back up with something approaching accuracy.

Hubby has video from our security cameras of me getting stuck on a hill and then jack knifing with my little tractor and trailer.  No, I will not be sharing.

Cross your fingers, blogosphere.  This afternoon, I take the behemoth on my maiden voyage to the barn for my lesson.  Do they make phone books anymore?  I may need some help seeing over the dash.  Oh, and it's raining.  FML.

Monday, January 2, 2017

The positive reinforcement pony

Unlike the dog training world, positive reinforcement isn't seen as much with horses.  Pats on the neck and verbal rewards are pretty much it and it's haphazard, forgotten in the heat of the moment when working on a concept.  Bits, spurs, and crops are mainstream, but giving your horse a cookie while training under saddle is seen as weird.  Leaping off of my horse and loosening his girth to mark a break through?  What on earth am I doing?  I have a lot of experts that think I'm ruining my horse when they see me whip out cookies in the midst of a training session.  You're spoiling him!  Your horse is going to get rude and nippy!  He won't work for you if you don't have a treat for him!  He won't respect you!

Ladies, gentlemen, and those that choose to not use those labels, I am here to tell you what it is actually like to have a horse that is a positive reinforcement pony.

First, some definitions:
Positive reinforcement = adding something positive as a reward, like a cookie
Negative reinforcement = taking away something negative as a reward, like releasing pressure on the bit, but this can also happen when a horse learns to evade something (and we wonder why horses learn to stop, its very rewarding to avoid the effort if the effort is seen as a negative)

Positive punishment = adding something negative as a punishment, such as a smack with a crop
Negative punishment = taking away something positive as a punishment, such as me turning away when Theo's being pushy

Your horse will get rude and pushy!

No more than any other horse.  Any horse can learn to be rude and pushy when they think a treat is coming.  Having the process of earning and receiving a cookie being formalized can actually help with pushy behavior.  Theo is not allowed to push for a treat.  He begs when he thinks there is a treat coming and he's not working (whickers, pricks his ears, arches his neck, acts cute), but he is not allowed to try to take one unless it's offered.  He is not allowed to reach for a hand that's not offered or step into a person's space.  It's important that he not get pushy or nippy.  Trainer A is very appreciative.  At the end of a lesson, she usually shares an apple or Kind bar with him.  He will arch his neck and beg, but he won't touch her, crowd her, or try to take something from her unless it's deliberately offered.  It keeps fingers and toes safe.  Theo is more polite with treats than many horses I've met because he's been taught how he has to behave in order to get one.

He won't work if you don't have a treat!

First, I always have a treat.  Always.  I keep them in my pocket at shows, when trailering, when I bring him in from the field.  No matter what situation, there is a cookie in my pocket.  And all of my breeches have pockets.  It's just how I do things.  It helps with a lot of situations, even ones with horses that aren't mine.  More than once I've had someone ask me for a cookie while loading a horse in a trailer or handling a situation like clipping.  I always have something in my pocket.  Theo assumes that I have a a cookie at all times.  It's been very helpful at shows, since he assumes he could get a reward at any time.  Lots of horses get 'ring smart' and realize they won't get disciplined in front of the judge.  I sure don't want to use my whip while in competition.  It's not a good impression for the judge.  But judges, in my experience, think handing a treat to your horse is cute or totally not worth noting.  He's not 'ring smart' because I have rewarded him in the ring at competitions.  He associates the judge's booth with cookies because I always have them just in case he does something amazing like go past without broncing. 

Second, he works regardless of me handing him a cookie.  He's on a random reward schedule, so if he doesn't get one, he assumes he needs to do more to get his cookie.  He doesn't have xray vision, he doesn't know if a treat is in my pocket.  He assumes I have one available, and if he does something good, he'll get a reward.  Random reward schedule is very important for this.  It keeps him trying even if he doesn't get a cookie immediately for any given action.  There's a very specific verbal marker that represents a cookie being delivered.  So long as I don't use that verbal marker when I don't actually have a reward, he will work with pets and cooing until it's time for his treat.  Pets and cooing serve as information for him, he's on the right track.  At the end of a string of correctly executed maneuvers, he'll get a treat.  He's just not sure where the end of that string of maneuvers is.

He's working for the cookie, not you!

One, check your ego at the door.  Who cares?  Horses need more of a reward than some mythical bond with a strange, bipedal omnivore that doesn't speak their language and controls every part of their lives.  Your horse is probably not as in love with you as you think.  Your approval is not what he lies awake at night and wishes for.  Two, I'm the one providing the cookie.  He's begging me, not the cookie.  It's a solid, concrete reward.  Petting and verbal rewards are still a huge part of working with him.  I coo to him, talk to him, scratch along his crest, and give him quick pats with a release all the time.  I use cookies to very specifically mark a behavior when I'm developing it or reward him for overall effort.

I have a degree in psychology.  I taught rats to do a lot of things using nothing but operant conditioning as part of my college work.  I have a fair bit of training for this skill between dog training and rat work.  Timing is everything.  When I first introduce something difficult to Theo, I'll shape his behavior.  He gives me an honest try, I mark the behavior with a specific word ('good boy'), followed by a cookie.  I do this a couple times to get him rolling.  Then I expect more from him to get the same reward.  For shoulder in, he got marked for the first offer of shoulder fore to start.  Then I asked for more angle before I'd give him a reward.  Then I weaned him off of the reward, asking for several reps to get a reward.  Now it's old hat and he just does the movement.  He'll get a reward if he really blows my socks off, like doing it at the canter, but for the most part he understands and gives me the behavior without needing a cookie.  He gets a pat on the neck, a verbal reward, and we keep working.

He won't respect you!

Make no mistake, Theo respects me.  Just because I formally mark and reward behaviors doesn't mean that's the only thing I use.  He's a thousand pound animal.  He tries to push me or bite me, I carry a dressage whip for a reason.  However, because of his personality, after he's been sharply corrected, I will give him a chance to earn a reward very quickly.  He gets rude during a hand walk.  I snap the chain, back him up, and give him a verbal correction.  Then I turn, act like nothing happened, and find something to play the 'touch it' game.  Lesson learned, but I also end the fight.  My horse respects me.  I'm going to guess this myth comes from the natural horsemanship world.  Yes, I've seen a lot of horses with Parelli levels that have no respect for humans.  This isn't natural horsemanship.  It's conditioning, pure and simple.

There's a lot more myths and variations, including concerns about what I'm doing to my bits and bridles.  But these are the ones I hear the most.

It's proven that positive reinforcement is more effective than positive punishment when learning.  Positive punishment is associated with increased stress in animals (and people).  If I have an option to use a technique that will lower stress, increase motivation, and increase the likelihood of the behavior being offered, I'll take it.

I don't recommend every single horse and rider pair jump into positive reinforcement with both feet.  It takes some study for the rider to really get it.  It takes careful timing and practice.  It also takes practice to manage the cookies, especially with gloves.  You have to consider your wardrobe in terms of pocket space.  My poor washer and dryer have processed a lot of forgotten horse cookies.  I don't use a treat pouch since that gives him something to visually cue on for the presence of cookies.  Cookies should be a source of mystery, magically appearing in the rider's hand from hammerspace or some other dimension.

Some horses get obsessed with the reward.  Same as dogs, some can't work with something that they want so badly.  It becomes a distraction rather than a help.  But I think positive reinforcement has a place with horses and is often overlooked or dismissed when it should be a common tool in the toolbox.  Theo is highly food motivated and used to have a terrible work ethic.  Really, what was in it for him?  He got kicked either way and work was hard.  He hated work.  Adding something he loved improved his opinion.  He now associates work with rewards to be earned, rewards that are more motivating than the random pets of someone that's also making him do the nonsense.  I could have tried kicking him more, getting bigger spurs, used the whip, any number of negative reinforcements, but we're all happier with the positive reinforcements. 

In the average ride, Theo gets about three to five rewards.  Despite the jokes, I'm not a pez dispenser.  The number sky rockets when we're adding something new that needs heavy reinforcement (turn on the haunches for the first couple weeks, teaching him 'touch it', right now it's his canter to walk transition and flying changes), but he typically gets one when I mount (he never moves a foot, even when I'm mounting on trails or at hunter paces), one after warm up, one after his hard work is done, and one when I dismount.  Two of those cookies are to reinforce his behavior when I'm mounting and dismounting.  It has saved my bacon several times that he stands completely still for both maneuvers no matter where we are, waiting for his cookie.  When we're jumping, he'll get one when he's completed a full course or when he's on break between sets with the grid. 

Dog training manuals give excellent advice on positive reinforcement, for anyone that wants to consider adding a couple of sugar cubes into their regime.  Horses, as a rule, I don't consider to be candidates for strictly positive reinforcement training because they're so big and sometimes, just sometimes, I need immediate obedience.  Like when standing on my foot.  Horses also do an awful lot of communicating in the herd with shoving and biting.  But the equestrian culture leans too far toward negative reinforcement.  I think horses need a reward to work toward, something more concrete than our approval.  The most powerful reward I have is to vault out of the saddle and loosen the girth.  That should say something in regards to how horses view their work.

I do see dressage riders presenting their horses with a sugar cube at the end of a test and it makes me feel less odd.  Maybe we'll find a spot for equestrian culture that's not so dependent on negative reinforcement or positive punishment.  I can hope so.  Some horses just need a bit more positive motivation than others.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

2016: The Debutante Season

2016 was very exciting.  In February, I bought a certain someone so he could be my very own dressage pony.  Poor thing.

Then we set out on our adventure to see if he could learn to be a show pony.  We had good shows, we had bad shows, but we managed to knock all of the goals off of our list. 

Looking back, it was quite a year.   I started out not even sure if we could get around.  I careen into 2017 with my Bronze plans feeling more real and my horse feeling like a different animal.  Today I got on him and spent the New Year polishing our simple changes and introducing him to shoulder in at the canter.  He has hit the same level Fi had achieved and shows no signs of stopping.  Far from it.  The further we go, the more he seems to enjoy his work.

I have lots of fond memories of 2016.  I have bareback rides where I acted like a fool and my pony flopped around.  I have trots down centerline with my heart in my throat and my partner holding my hand.  We galumphed down trails and Theo showed other riders what was possible.  I have some memories I don't enjoy much, like porpoising at C and making judges gasp or the time we went to war and it took us a week to make up.  But I don't regret my decisions one bit.  I bought the horse I need and increasingly, I bought the horse I want.  We went out and learned how to manage life at shows.  We've hit the point where most rides are enjoyable and the difficult, resistant horse of 2015 is a distant memory.

I desperately need to get some new video.  I'm so proud of him.

2017 will be another year of growth for us.  We've got a lot of work to do, but I feel like we're going in with some momentum.  We'll be showing less (no one wants to dressage with us, sigh), but we're well on track to hit levels of dressage-ing that I've never achieved before.  We might even shoulder-in in public!

2016 sucked in a lot of ways, but for my equestrian life, it was everything I could have hoped for.  And I have hope that 2017 will be another stellar year.  I certainly have the right partner.

Happy 2017 to all!