Saturday, June 30, 2018

Torturing the equine

Poor Theo.  I'm a terrible mother.  I talked to Trainer A and we have two things to work on over the next two weeks:

  • Impulsion
  • Working with distractions

Impulsion has improved mightily over the years, but clearly we need to make sure it's a very conditioned response so it doesn't fail when under pressure.  Leg goes on, pony goes forward.  Over.  And over.  And over.

And over.

Until I want to puke.  But that's how a conditioned response is created.  If he doesn't step forward promptly, he gets the little whip tap.  When he does, he gets the neck scritches.  We'll always need to work on this, but we're really going to focus in preparation for our next outing.

The distractions thing made Trainer A giggle with delight and clap her hands.  I've never been squeamish when it comes to torturing my pony in the name of desensitization and I've only gotten worse after our epic bombproofing clinic.  I have zero fear of what will happen when you surprise my horse.  Been there, done that, have the t-shirt.  Trainer A had full license to do whatever she wanted and she frankly needed it.  In his home indoor with people and horses he knows?  Mi papi is not particularly reactive.  He's in a safe place and he knows it.

She threw an empty milk jug around in a cubby where the jumps are kept, so he couldn't see her but could hear her banging around.  She found random equipment to bang against the walls when he went by.  She threw the barrels we use for jumping out of the cubby so they would bang and roll around.  She dragged out a huge piece of canvas and got her dog to ride around on it, tugging and growling, while she ran around the ring with it.  She banged on an empty barrel and sang loudly before rolling the barrel AT my horse while I was cantering.

She did it.  She shoved him into that hyper alert state where he starts to spook and stare at everything, even stuff he will usually ignore.  He spooked at a bag on the ground that he will usually pick up and carry around like a puppy.  I then worked him through it while not letting him brace or drop his back or suck back behind my leg.  It was not easy, especially when she started rolling barrels at us from the front and we had to canter by like nothing was happening.  It took a couple tries (and a little spank when he broke to trot) but he very bravely cantered by the moving threat with his tummy tucked up so it couldn't get him.

The reps were more for me than him.  Do NOT grab his face because he's distracted, get in the back seat and boot him along.  He knows how to be on the bit, once he's in front of my leg he goes into the contact just fine.  I know I can stop a bolt within a breath of it starting, so no need to guard against it.  If I want him to march past the scary thing, I can't also hold him back.  Over and over we went past scary, distracting things while I was reminded to give with my hands and get him in front of my leg.  Don't bring the bit back to him, shove him forward into the contact.  He knows what to do once he's there and frankly, he seemed to find the boundaries of the aids comforting.  His back came up.  I know it did because I could suddenly sit the trot just fine.  His hocks and stifles were definitely at work since he was trying to be as far from the things on the ground as possible. 

There was talk of recruiting the working students to stand around the outside ring with pom poms and do loud cheers while we run through our test.  No walk around for Theo, just straight up centerline with cheerleaders waving pom poms at C.  If this happens, I will demand video.

After that, the usual spectators should seem utterly boring. 

Thursday, June 28, 2018


I have to keep reminding myself that the value of my horse and my riding isn't the number I get at a horse show.

This expression while watching a tree get dropped was his expression for pretty much the entire show

Went to my first rated show in a year.  We've worked our butts off, overhauled the way we go, and been well rewarded at the schooling shows.  I know schooling show scores are higher, but when you're consistently upper 60's, you feel ready to go out with the big kids.  Not win, but not look ridiculous.

It was a facility neither of us knew.  I was pleased to see that we would have one test in the indoor, one test in the outdoor.  We need the practice in new rings and indoors aren't something we see a lot of at rated shows.  The indoor ring had an indoor warmup, so he was mentally set on the idea of being in an indoor and he was used to the lighting.  He warmed up very well, nice and relaxed once he'd had a good look around.  I was first after the lunch break.  We went in as soon as they would let us, while the judge was still getting settled.

It was a very big indoor with two judge stands covered with flowers.  Theo stopped dead to stare at the judge, but walked by with minimal fuss.  He also stopped to stare at the empty judge stand on the side and I had to carefully tip toe him by so we could make it to A.  She rang the bell pretty quickly, so Theo didn't see much of the ring before centerline.

He was brave, I will give him that, but with so much to look at?  Wicked behind my leg and would suck back every time we were heading toward A.  The spectators were still getting settled, dropping things, going up the stairs to the observation area, etc.  He started to scoot at one point but came back so quickly I didn't even get a knock from the judge.  I did, however, get a knock on every movement for him being sucked back and distracted.  By the end of the test I was kicking like a Pony Clubber to make him canter toward the spectators.  Lengthens?  Not so much.  One was more of a loop because he was trying to step away from the empty judge's booth, the other got slower as we got closer to the moving people on the stairs.

It was survival mode, pure and simple.  I smiled at the end because he never spun, bucked, or quit on me.  It just wasn't the test we can do and I knew our score was going to suck.  I sat by the trailer with Theo between tests, eating a snack bar and trying to not be upset.  He was so, so much better than he would have been in the past.  It just wasn't good enough.

My second test was in an outdoor, far from the warm up area, with a storm blowing in.  Yeah, you can imagine how this went.  My slightly grumpy pony was giving me hints that he was thinking about being rude.  I picked him up instead of having him walking around on the buckle to make sure he didn't spin as the other horse left.  I didn't have to kick and I felt like the test was better.  He was tense and rather bug eyed, but I wasn't having to boot him around and he wasn't sucking back at one end of the ring.  He did give me one head shake and come off the rail at the end of his walk, but that was very brief.  I was actually very, very proud of him.  Out there alone in high winds and he was very honest. 

My first test score arrived after I was done with my second test.  I got a 60.000%.  I thought that was very fair for a distracted, behind the leg, but successful test.  I was 7th out of 9, right where I thought to be.  He was seen as a capable but distracted horse that needed more impulsion.

My second test arrived with a yellow ribbon on it and I got excited.  3rd out of 7?  That has to be better than a 60%!  Nope.  57.6%.  Only one person in First 2 got higher than a 60.  The judge was quite sharp.  My figures were not accurate enough and my horse was hollow in the back and behind my leg.

I forgot how different it is to ride for S judges.  They see everything.  I'll admit to feeling utterly defeated, sitting in my truck looking at those two tests.  I even thought about scratching my next show because what's the point?  I've been working for a year and got nothing.  Worse than nothing, I went down on my First 2 test.

But I spent my two hour drive back trying to remember the positives.  Theo did not spin, buck, bolt, or otherwise try to quit on me the entire day.  He marched into two very scary rings on his own without anyone clutching their pearls or gasping.  My First 3 test was bad.  I'm the first to say it, it was BAD.  It was not at all the test I practiced or wanted.  We still got a 60% from an S judge. 

I really think my first judge saw a distracted, slightly fearful horse and judged us through that lens.  She saw him freeze twice on our way around the ring, she knew he was overwhelmed.  We were tense and had zero forward, but he was with me and was reasonably relaxed by the end of the test.  We squeaked out a 60%.

The second judge didn't see him freeze up or spook, I had already picked him up and didn't let him get a good look around.  She saw our test through a different lens.  She saw a tense horse with a hollow back and a rider that couldn't hit her figures.  She didn't know that my horse was trying to step away from the things he swore he could hear in the trees, she saw a too big circle and hit us with a 4.  We got hit with a 57% which still seems harsh for a First level test where we completed every movement easily, but I can't disagree with any of the comments.  He was tense, his back was dropped, and some of my movements were late due to my pony being distracted and not responding promptly.  My scores were tough, but I can't argue with them.  I really, really want to, but I can't in good conscience. 

Which leaves me utterly disheartened.  I worked so, so hard.  We didn't get to show a bit of it off.

Now we get to spend two weeks practicing riding a test with distractions.  Because if I can't fix this, we'll never be able to move up.  It's not about movements or impulsion or any of that anymore.  It's about him understanding that he needs to go forward into the test and not suck back while fighting my hand so he can pick up his head and stare.  None of that looks good in a dressage test.  We've gotten his adaptation time down to a few minutes, but that's still too long.  We're pretty much through the test by that point.

I'm not 100% sure what we do now.  But I've already paid for the show, so I guess I better figure it out.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Life with a troublemaker

Actual texts I have received about Theo:

Theo busted his gate again.  He's now in the Everglades.

Theo got his foot stuck into fence.  Got stuck, pulled off shoe, flipped himself over.  He was not to thrilled to see baby goats running around.

Theo was kind of an ass to start today.

So the alfalfa worked too good, I guess.  Everyone working on canter and Theo felt the need to ditch [rider] and turn into a stud.  Boot camp week this week?

So Theo was a pig today.

Well today's ride was different.  Your horse kills me.

I've had many people say they love him because he has so much character.  Right.  So much character that I had to lather his ears with pink Swat since he insists on playing fly mask tag with his neighbors and then losing.  I found a halter in his field that didn't belong to him.  Turns out he stole a halter off of a pony and then kept it as a souvenir.

Two weeks ago I was greeted with 'You won't believe what your little monster did today!'.  He'd busted loose, started a fight with two horses, and taken the working students for a run.

Last week I took him into the Ritz for a group lesson.  I received many compliments on my seat and my courage.  It's nice to get compliments, but I'd really rather not get them for my ability to sit the bronco impersonation.

Keeping sane in conference calls with some art to commemorate our lesson

He does like to keep things interesting.

Thursday, June 21, 2018


Found this in the draft folder, yet another post I never posted because I was waiting for promised pictures.  Well, forget that.  Time to share my progress.


I had a clinician watch me run through me Second Level test and say 'you have it, you have all of the moves, you just need to practice the sequence and smooth out the test'.

I wanted to squeal like a little girl.

I watched my horse cart his beginner adult around in the same clinic, performing leg yield and counter canter while keeping a connection and flexion, letting her learn to sit the trot and how to lengthen the canter.  She doesn't even know a counter canter is hard, he just did it.  She stared at me, wondering why it was a Second Level movement.

I wanted to cry.

He's a school master.  He's a Second Level horse.  He has natural talent for collection and a perfectly acceptable (but not at all impressive) medium.  He has a naturally uphill canter.  A Grand Prix level dressage rider that doesn't know him at all described him as a soft, forgiving horse and just loved him.  No, not a 70% horse, not talented or extravagant or any of that, but far more valuable.  He's the horse the ammy adults want.  He's the horse you can learn on, that will do it if you're close enough.

I learned to invite him up to the higher level frame and was shocked when he simply stepped into it while still licking and chewing.  He tucked his butt, lifted, and met me half way as I worked on refining my understanding of collection.  'It's not about getting to Second Level, this is the frame that will take you to Third and beyond'.

Dressage pony
I'm in tears.

We did it.  While I wasn't looking, while I was questioning everything, we managed to get there.  I had no idea until someone simply expected it of us.  He lifted, I cued, and he gave me a lovely collected trot and shoulder in while chewing away.  Our first run through of the test was terrible because I was so tense.  I was terrified of doing this test that seemed so impossible and out of my league while people where watching me.  Once I remembered how to ride?  We did it.  We comfortably, reliably preformed.  It wasn't scary or a stretch.  It was just another test.  What more could I ask for?

One of my friends at the barn said 'it's rough when you're still riding the horse from one level ago'.  I was.  I was riding First Level Theo.  I now have Second Level Theo.  When he announced he couldn't possibly go in the muddy corner at our western dressage schooling show (he slipped, to be fair), I reset him in the warm up ring.  I brought him up to the new frame, tucked his butt, and took him back in.  75% and reserve champion for the day, up 9 percent in ten minutes.

It's crazy.  I spent so long trying to get here, and here I am.  I don't even know what to do with it.  Aside from start figuring out who has the joy of putting his changes on this winter.  For real, this time.

Fire, torture, and losers - part 3

I waited for two months and I still have no media from this clinic.  So here you go, the final installment of a clinic from all the way back in April.  Fortunately, I had the whole thing written and waiting in the drafts folder.

Yes, we're still alive and doing the dressaging thing.

Random pic of mi papi looking amazing

All of the clinic’s riders were looking a bit rough on that third morning.  We stared at each other with exhausted eyes, wondering how we were going to manage another six hours in the saddle.  Theo was looking pretty tired himself and I left him in his stall so he could focus on getting as much hay in his face as possible.  Being under saddle so much meant he didn’t have as much time to eat and he wasn’t getting as much hay as he usually does.

Our lecture was around different maneuvers that mounted police use to work with crowds.  It was a fairly short lecture, very interesting to hear exactly how mounted police get things done with their horses.  We were told that we’d be practicing an extraction maneuver and I didn’t even have the energy to be worried about the tight formation.  I’m starting to see this mad man’s plan.  Tired riders don’t tend to make for nervous horses.

Theo was very good when he came out for his morning session, learning to walk under an arch that had smoke diffusing through it to look like a wall.  He was not at all a fan of trying to walk through a wall, but by this point it wasn’t the craziest thing I’d asked for and he was slightly more willing.  There was more fire since the group really didn't do well with fire.  So much fire.  One very cool moment was when our little chicken of a Gypsy mare suddenly got brave and trotted straight through the obstacles and fire, feathers flying.  It was like she'd suddenly discovered that forward was an option.  We took our lunch break and went back for our last round of torture.

Theo was not at all interested in going back in that ring.  He suddenly flew sideways dramatically at the squad car that didn't even have the dog or sirens going.  I put on a spur to stop him and that PITA popped up and bucked.  I'd already been told to spin him if he tried to pop up with me again, so I spun him until we were both dizzy.  I headed toward the car, he flew back and started to buck hard.  I spun him again.  I walked toward the car and he sighed and shook his head.  Looked like he was going back to work.  We might have found an answer to that remaining bully behavior.

By the end of our third day, the dial was turned all the way up.  Five obstacles, fire around all five of them, smoke bomb going off on the last obstacle, siren going on the moving squad car.  It was sensory overload.  Smell the smoke, see the fire, feel the pool noodles and teeter totter, taste the gasoline in the air, hear the sirens.  Theo had figured out that his job was to go over those obstacles and if he did, I would pet him and slip him a cookie.  So he sucked himself up and followed the horse in front of him.  It wasn't pretty, he was hard up against my hands at a couple of points when he tried to rush out of this little slice of hell, but he did it on our first attempt.  I was in tears.  Thank goodness for the sunglasses, no one could see.

Our finale was to do an extraction simulation.  Our job was to go in as four pairs, boot to boot and nose to tail.  We were supposed to go up to the squad car (with lights and sirens on), sweep the drunks off of it by getting as close as possible while yelling "Get off the car, stupid!", turn around, and form a V around the car while escorting it out.  The scenario is an emergency vehicle trying to get through a crowd and getting an assist from mounted officers.

I think Theo missed his calling in life.  Our 'drunks' were the instructor and his assistants.  Theo had zero issue with getting right up on that car and shoving them aside.  After a few practice reps, he had the idea that his job was to get people off HIS car and he rather enjoyed it.  He did not enjoy being in a very tight formation with the other horses, but by that point, he was too shellshocked to do more than pin his ears.  For our last pass, we escorted that car across the arena at a slow trot with the dog barking in the back seat and sirens blaring.  It was pretty dang cool.

We got a certificate for completing 30 hours of mounted police training.  By my math, over half of that was in the saddle over three days.  He probably spooked and spun/bolted with me a hundred times over those three days.  Every part of my body hurt.  I have weird bruises on my hands that I can't identify.  I missed the sunscreen on one ear lobe and it was lobster red.  My legs and back have signed a pact to keep me from getting out of any chair. 

Did it work?  Not the way everyone thinks when they see these kinds of clinics.  He's not suddenly braver.  He's not bombproof.  He's the same horse he was three days ago.  What changed is my level of confidence and his response to my pressure.  We kept facing things and making it clear that saying yes was the right response.  By the end, I could feel him fighting me less, trusting that it was going to be okay because I said it would be.  I felt him suck back from something, but then push forward when I closed my calves.  He will still spook and startle, but we've practiced it so many times that I'm confident I can manage it within two steps and we can move on with our lives.  It's not something I have to fear and try to prevent.  I got this horse through smoke and fire and teeter-totters, we can manage the outside of a show ring.

We have a lot left to do.  I need to be able to keep him on task while also having him in that 'up' frame of mind.  I need a couple hundred more reps so he stops considering fighting me.  I need to be ready to stop that bully behavior dead every time it's offered.  I need to acknowledge that behavior for what it is.  I told him to do something and he threw a fit.  That wasn't about fear.  He pushed drunks off that car with the siren blaring, he wasn't scared of it.  He just didn't feel like working anymore and figured he'd try to scare me out of it.  He failed.

This instructor does clinics all over the country.  If you want to experience just what you and your horse can handle, sign up.  Do not expect him to cater to your special pony's needs or your concerns.  You will be thrown into the fire.  Literally.   The more your horse hates it, the more he'll do it.  He's not at all rough and has the patience of a saint, but he also does not mess around.  He didn't even warn us when he started the first fire.  He did scale things back when it was too much for the horses, he doesn't want them to fail.  But he doesn't back off due to spooking and snorting and bolts.  That makes him laugh and do it again.  He would yell 'loser!' every time a horse did something they didn't want to do.  There were many jokes about his favorite thing on a horse being mustard and mayo.  He's gruff and not concerned with being politically correct.  I had to utterly ignore the entire lesson on using the reins since it started with 'whoever came up with that outside rein nonsense was an idiot'.  But his goal is to get a horse to march toward a rioting crowd, not to get a perfect circle in the sandbox.

Will I do it again?  I don't know.  I'm exhausted, physically and mentally.  I will be doing serious business desensitization at the barn to keep up with this work.  I don't know if I could go back to the clinic now that I know what I'm in for.  Do I recommend it?  Not to the faint of heart or anyone genuinely afraid of their horse or riding.  If you've already ridden your horse's spooks and know you can manage it (you don't have to like it), then yes. Do it once.  Plan on the clinic running longer than expected (1.5 to 2 hours longer) and being in the saddle for the majority of the time.  Plan on being exhausted.  Plan on learning to laugh when the mad man with the gasoline can says 'and now we make it fun!'.  Do not expect him to cater to your horse's insecurities.  He will spot them, target them, and beat on them relentlessly.  Expect off color jokes and statements like 'damn, I hate horses, you couldn't give me one'.  'People think I love horses since I train 'em.  They've never seen what I do to 'em.'  Again, not cruel or rough, just finds their spooking hilarious.  He thinks petting horses is stupid and told me my problem was that I talk to my horse too much.  So don't go in expecting a lot of supportive commentary.  He'll make comments about you petting your horse too much, but he won't try to stop you or make it into an issue.

Go into it with the expectation that you will come out the other side a different rider and you won't be disappointed.  I've been desensitized more than my horse.  I know I can stop my horse in his loose ring snaffle within two steps even when a fire suddenly springs up in front of him.  I know he can manage being in a crowd.  I have a tool to manage his temper tantrums.  I don't need to use kid gloves with my horse.  I know he can handle more and so can I.