Monday, March 30, 2015

Never. Chase. Points.

In my "welcome back to riding" post from the other day,  I mentioned that I won't be likely to point-chase on Mo, in part because of who he is (a baby still, thrives from having a break, stresses out when he feels too pressured--things that may change when he is a grown up, but that's the horse I have today). And in one of my over-used parantheticals, I issued my decree: NEVER CHASE POINTS. Lauren asked me to elaborate.

I don't have any pics for this post, so here are some critters I love. This is Duchess.
 It's not as though point-chasing has never occurred to me. I love horse showing. LOVE. If I had the budget, I would live at horse shows and compete as much as possible. I thrive on the environment, I'm competitive but not to the point that I MUST win, and I love seeing beautiful horses and tack and riders all spit-shined and ready to rock it.

Almost ready for his show career.
 But perhaps I need to back up a second. Let's remember that I'm a jumper rider in my heart of hearts. That has two implications: 1. I don't really know a lot about points in any other discipline, though I have to assume that the set-ups are somewhat similar.  2. The way we try to win any given class is different than how other folks try to win. (NOTE: I AM NOT TALKING ABOUT DRUGGING HERE. Topic for a different day.) When dressage folks and hunters try to win, they're putting in their best test that day, and it is subjectively measured. Of course, dressage horses and show hunters are athletes, and in addition to elegance, they must be accurate and powerful. But I think in those two disciplines, riders are going to be at least somewhat less likely to make the horse absolutely crazy in one class, as jumper riders trying to beat the clock can do. Eventers lie somewhere in the middle, as they must start with a dressage score, but they can of course push the horse very hard over fences if they're trying to win.
I miss my Lexi.

 So here's my philosophy on winning, as a jumper rider and former eventer: Don't try.

Okay, what I really mean is, don't try 95%-ish of the time. I will try to win when these three, and all of these three, conditions are met: 1. It is a money class (which I haven't ridden in in a LONG time, having been horseless for a good seven years and in greenie world for the last few); 2. I'm actually positioned to win if I do things right (meaning there aren't 15 other horses in the jump off who could easily kick my ass); 3. Trying to win will not result in frying my horse's brain; in other words, he can cope with the pressure.

This horse's brain fries at the slightest provocation.

That does not mean that I don't care about pulling rails or time faults, because I REALLY DO. I always prepare to ride clean and inside the time, and I typically pull that off. And sometimes I win because other people made more mistakes than I did that day. And sometimes I don't win even though the horse's performance put me over the moon with happiness. It doesn't matter. It's not worth trying to win, because it isn't worth galloping recklessly around a course and taking huge risks that could demoralize or fluster my horse or get one of us hurt. And I know y'all know what I mean, you've seen plenty of those riders.

Another nutty horse I used to ride. She's an eventer now.
Those kinds of "I have to win this 3'6" jumper class!!!!" rounds just kill me, because they violate the first rule of horsemanship: The horse always comes first. Always. Always.

Now, don't get me wrong, I make rider errors that piss the horse off or confuse him or whatever, as do we all. I'm not saying "be perfect or don't ride." I'm saying that don't throw your education and horse sense to the wind the minute you get your sights set on a blue ribbon.

Ella wants all the points if points = toys.

Further, there are entire horse shows that I won't go to because I don't think it's worth it if you AREN'T going to be competitive (Upperville, for instance, which is less than an hour from my house and I have a really nice show jumper, but we won't be going, because he is not an Upperville horse and I haven't shown in a good 18 months). That doesn't mean YOU shouldn't. If you want to do Dressage at Devon just because and you know you're not going to win anyway, that's fine. I just don't, because I don't have any real money, and that's just how I've organized my life.

Back when I was pretending to be a dressage rider, double bridle and all.
This horse wasn't gonna win any year-end awards, as he reared in half his tests.
Still got his rider a silver medal, though.

So if you draw the line from "don't try to win" to "never chase points," you see that it's quite direct. I can't chase points if I'm not trying to win. And I can't chase points if there are some horse shows I'm not going to go to. Points require being in the ring A LOT. That's great! I love being in the ring a lot. But it means being in the ring a lot on the same horse, and here's the thing: not all horses can or should handle that. And even if they can--if you're getting near the high point award on your horse, and you decide to chase points, remember that someone could likely outspend you by going to shows on your circuit that you can't afford to go to, can't get the time off work or it just isn't in the budget, and all of a sudden you've outspent your means and maybe worn out your horse (and perhaps yourself) and... you're not in the top.

Do points = peppermintses?
So. There you have it. That's why I don't chase points. That doesn't mean you shouldn't, and if you get a high point award, you will receive my hearty and sincere congratulations, because I trust that we are all doing our best to make good decisions for ourselves and our horses.

Forget points. Chase naps.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Have the Conversation: A Review Lesson

 I'm lucky in many ways, and among them is that my horse is sweet and smart and wants to be good. I'm also in the very enviable position of being M's working student. One of our mutual friends said to me one day that I'm in a position that A LOT of people are actively envious of, and I took that to heart. Not that I'm the type to take good training for granted ever, but it's good to keep in mind nonetheless.

Among M's many skills is her ability to say things in a way that clicks. If it doesn't work the first time, she explains it a bit. Still not working? She'll find a new way to say it. It sounds small, but not every coach can do that.

Another thing she's just really terrific at is giving young horses a kind and thoughtful beginning to their education. Really, this is why I wanted to work with her. I'm so glad I have Mo and M at the same time. And last week's lesson--our first of the year--demonstrates why. In part, it's because we had nearly the same lesson more than once last year, in which we worked on encouraging Mo to soften to the contact (except last year we jumped, but he's not fit enough yet). And Mo progressed beyond that into actually being on the bit. And then he basically had the winter off. We're certainly not back to square one. For instance, he can move off my leg now (though he's a bit of a kick ride at this point, which may change as he gets fitter). Instead of being all "why doesn't he know this still?" or "why aren't you the perfect rider?" she just went back to that phase of the training and talked us through it like we'd never heard it before. Not in a condescending way, but in the kind and patient way she typically does. And I wasn't making any huge rider mistakes--my horse had only been back under saddle for three or four rides when we took our lesson, and he needed those rides to remember how to horse. But it was time to pick up the reins and ask him to get to work. So what follows are mostly screen shots from the video my mom VERY kindly took, and pointers from M. Most of it isn't revelatory, but it's quite useful, and schooling green horses to the contact is something many of us are working on at the moment.

First of all, she was very pleased with his warm up walk. It was long and in front of my leg. It wasn't into the contact (gotta work on that at the trot first so you don't mess up the walk), but it was relaxed and swinging and happy. Good enough for training level dressage.

Then we picked up the trot, and he was the tiniest bit more up than usual because there were people in the ring looking at him, but I just kept him in front of my leg and established forward. And at last, it was time to pick up the reins and get him schooling.

A little up, but forward.

"Keep your reins. He may not love it, but he'll find his way too it, just like he does with side reins." This is what she means by having the conversation, or starting it. And you need to have the conversation again and again--those are half halts--to make sure he's still with you.

Turkey Trot.

 Mostly, he wasn't nearly as whiny as he has been in the past about the contact. I think there are a couple reasons for this: he understands it more now than he used to, and the winter off was really good for his brain.

Relaxed and soft--good starting ingredients.

 As far as position goes, she didn't harp on me as much as she could/should have (let's remember that I'm riding in an Antares jump saddle, which encourages a closed hip angle, not a dressage saddle or a less forward-going jump saddle, but I do still have that positional sin to correct), but she did remind me that when I take the reins, I need to keep my elbows bent. I give too easily and too soon otherwise.

Love pretty much everything about this.

One thing that helped a lot in the early going was five walk/trot transitions to get him thinking about what I was asking for and to help with balance. Our transitions aren't terribly sharp yet, but that's not the immediate concern. No use in having sharp transitions on a horse who isn't anywhere near the bridle, let alone in it.

There's a pretty nice mover under all that baby stuff.

Also useful was her advice to cut in on the turns and then leg yield out a little bit so he connects to the outside rein more. This helped A LOT, even though we're not doing perfect dressagey leg yields at this point.

Imperfect but finding the outside rein a bit more.

I'm going to abandon the narrative a bit here, because what M had to say stands on its own without a lot of further blabbering from me:

"When you take the rein, keep the rein, until he stops whining, and THEN you can be soft[...]If you give back to him before he's softened, he's never really going to learn it."

Not the moment to give!
 "Hold the reins just as if you were the side reins. The side rens don't get longer if he pulls on them. And he comes really soft to the side reins. So what he has to learn is that you're not going to give back to him until he softens, and then you can be quite soft. But he has to say 'yes ma'am' when you say 'come here.'"

Still nope.

If the horse is too much in your inside rein, you can try changing directions. "When you change directions [to the right], really put that right leg into him so he doesn't drop his shoulder and motorbike around."

Needing a good change of direction here.

He can float behind my leg a little, which makes this exercise hard because I need more horse in the bridle to get him to understand the concept.

Tracking up=in front of my leg.
Much easier to get into the contact from here.
"Stay elastic. You will feel like you've got an 8 or a 9 in your hand. It should feel uncomfortable, and he should whine about it and try to find a release, and that's not a bad thing. It's a good thing! He's trying to figure out what the heck you want. So then when he comes soft, that's what you want, and that's when you soften to him. Because he has to find the right shape. Baby horses get through it."

Getting there, loving the front end.

 "So then, Jess, you're riding from soft moment to soft moment." [The beginner concept of what we were working on with Seneca the Dressage Horse last summer--riding from half halt to half halt.]

 "Once we get him to accept the connection, then we can ask him to lower his head and neck."


After about this point in the lesson, my phone ran out of room and Mom had to leave, so she missed the canter. There wasn't much to see anyway--it was the first canter of the year and the whole point was to survive it. But he was good, and there was no bucking or excessive hissy fits. So I'll take it!

The best part of the lesson, and this horse, were moments like this one:

See? Mama's boy.
He licks his lips pretty much every time I pat him now, whether I'm on him or not, and often when I just verbally praise him. To me, this says that he cares what I think and that he wants to do it right. I've had some very good horses who won't do this--Red, for instance--but it's a characteristic in Mo that I just adore and I hope it never goes away.

So we're off to a good start this year, knock on wood. I'm about to go hop on him, so fingers crossed for some good trot work and maybe even a little cantering even though it's cold and damp and gross outside (I thought it was spring? No?).

Monday, March 23, 2015

This Post Might be Jinxy

My sweet Mo has been such a joy lately. I'm sorry I haven't been able to keep everyone constantly updated on how FANTASTIC he has been under saddle lately, but I'm here to tell you that he's a treasure.*

Since I bought him, he's had stretches of time off here and there, and this winter was brutal for riding. But I've found that when it's time to pick him back up, he's always game. This one will be well-served by a conscientious training and competition schedule so he doesn't get stressy. It'll be worth it to show him less and show him well than chase points (NEVER CHASE POINTS) and keep the show schedule up, I think. Good for the budget, too.

The first ride back, I pulled this enormous fat pony out of the pasture.

When are you due, sweetie?

He was delighted to see me, as he pretty much always is, because he's turning into quite the mama's boy.

"Mama's Boy" just means he knows that I know where the cookies are.

And he was proud to show off his coat decorations.

There's a very fancy horse under all that crud.
 He lunged like a school pony for five minutes, and then I made him strike a pose so he could model the saddle pad I made.

We borrowed Beyonce's hair fan.
Walked and trotted around for, oh, 15-20 minutes, and then I had a sleepy boy on my hands.

Wow-WEE! That was HARD.

I could have stood there admiring him all day, and we snuggled in the ring for another ten minutes probably.

Treats now. I need sustenance to walk back to the barn.

Anyway, I owe y'all a lesson recap for sure, because we had a great flat ride with M last week. It was largely review, focusing on getting him into the contact at the trot, and then surviving the first canter back of the spring. It all went super great, and he was a doll, even if he fussed sometimes ("I don't mind the whining, he'll figure it out") and I made mistakes ("Don't worry, I will install the skills I need in you"). My mom came out and taped it, and while I can't use the video because I forgot to tell her to hold the phone sideways, I grabbed some stills and I'll be able to listen to it to remind myself of all the great stuff M said beyond the quotes above. For now, how CUTE IS THIS.

He licks his lips pretty much every time I pat him now.
We also had a brief ride last week that I was thrilled with. All we did was walk, but M was jumping one of her horses in the ring and cantering around and Mo plodded along on a loose rein like a freaking A-circuit professional. He could not have done that in November, that's for sure.

On Saturday, as some of you may recall, I was supposed to go to that super cute hunter show. Long story short, by the time we got there, there was no parking and it was a bit of a mess. No big deal, though--we re-routed to my friend's FABULOUS farm (the same place I took Red a couple months ago, and where Mo schooled in the indoor for the first time). This turned out to be a brilliant decision, because he still had to cope with being off the farm but without the tension that seemed to be running thick at the show. And it was much less muddy. It was a scuffle to get his bridle on (this one shall be bridled on the trailer or in a stall when away from home, foreverandeveramen), but other than that, he was just SO good. He had to see the terrifying sheep, the spooky jumps, new horses in the ring with him (just two, and they were quiet, but still). I just lunged him for a few minutes and then climbed up on, and I couldn't be happier with how the ride went. This one is a keeper. I wish I had pics of that day. Even though he didn't win any ribbons, it was a gold medal day in my mind.

There will be rocky rides ahead, but for now, I'm enjoying the hell out of this beastie.

* I realize that writing this means that he'll buck me off tomorrow. I'll take my lumps.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Two Horses, One [Lousy] Picture

Aaaaaand we might be back to the land of "I rode my horses today and no one was around to take pics."


Red was, of course, perfect. The dude loves to go forward. He does not like to stand still, especially when I have to adjust my stirrups. And I realized why I felt a little off-kilter in the saddle yesterday.

This is it. Your only pic for this post.
My right stirrup was about an entire hole longer than my left one. They were both on Hole 11. Way to go, "non-stretch" Antares leathers. And go me for getting that half pad di-rectly over his spine. Everyone is winning. But the other thing you can see is that I really really do need the insanely forward flap on my saddle. This isn't even my "the jumps are big" length and I'm taking up most of the knee roll. Since flaps more forward than this are not made, and a seat size bigger would be too big, this is what I'm working with. I always thought I was a pretty normal-sized person until saddle shopping made me realize that I'm a freak. But whatever. I'm sure having the femur of a 6'1" person on my 5'8" frame will be good for something eventually.

After I hopped off Red (who offered the same delicious stretchy engaged trot as yesterday AND stayed off my left leg after I fixed the damn stirrup) and threw my horses out, I tossed all my tack in the car and sped over to M's so I could see my precious dumpling, Mo. I didn't take a single picture of him today, partly because I was in a hurry and wanted to spend every minute I might need riding, and partly because he looks like he's from Fraggle Rock. My goal for the weekend is to reclaim his mane. If we can get any further grooming done, it'll be a miracle.

Here's the skinny: Mo was better for the tacking up process than I thought he might be. His head-shy issues are certainly back, but I think we'll be able to fix it again if we just keep messing with him. I got his bridle on with no issues, and as we headed up to the ring I thought I detected a certain pep in his step. So I opted not to hook up the side reins before lunging juuuuust in case. Sure enough, one flick of the whip and it was ON.

It was hilarious, really. He bucked hard for three or four laps on the lunge. M and I both burst out laughing. She was sitting on a horse and hollering at Mo: "Is that the best you can do? That's NOTHING." It was so, so funny. Once he got through it, he was licking his lips and trotting around like a school horse. What a dork. M said she thought it was funny that he was walking in and out every day like a dope but he had this huge bucking fit in him. I guess he saved it up for me. I'd have stayed on had I been in the saddle, but I'm glad I was lunging.

After I was pretty confident that he was done with being a butt, I hopped on. He was really, really good. His only job today was to stay in front of my leg (because a horse who's reaching with the front legs isn't about to buck you off or leap sideways). He did that pretty well, though his patented Mo laziness was in effect. I just kept my leg on and he was fine. It's no mystery why he didn't work out as a racehorse. As he often does when he's out of shape, he was really leaning on my hands at times. He'll get over it without undue fuss from me. I was happy today to just trot around a little. I can add transitions and whatnot in the next few days to get him off my hands and in front of the leg.

So that was my day with the boys. They're fabulous. I was happy with how I was riding. I know we're going to have more chilly days ahead, but I think the riding is about to get a whole lot more consistent. I sure hope it is, anyway, because I feel much better today and I need more of this in my life.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Riding a Red Horse


Of course, it's pouring right now, so tomorrow it might be under water, but today I had time to ride Red. Not Mo (sniffles), but I can put water wings on him and hack around tomorrow in the mud, no worries.

Thank god.
I really needed to get on a horse ASAP. This has not been an easy year so far over here, and riding has been minimal thanks to all the shitty weather that I've been complaining about endlessly. So even though all we did today was a little bit of walk/trot (because you don't take a 17yo ex-show jumper with an old suspensory injury and push him beyond that when he's had a month off), it was excellent.

Let me tell you. Red is a very nice horse to sit on. You should all come over and ride him.

Who, me? Aw shucks.
He LOVES his job. Loves it. So his walk was big and forward and swinging right from the get-go. And after about, oh, 15 minutes of walking around, we picked up a big, lovely trot. All I did was loop the reins at him, and he stretched over his topline looking for the bit and powered around, stepping under himself, all with no input from me. I just had to sit up and smile. I mean, if I'm being truly picky, he was a leeeeeeeeeeeetle bit leaning on my inside leg going left, but I can fix that. I'm out of riding shape too, and so I'm not sure I was sitting my best.

I could stare at this picture all day.
Oh, and one other fun thing--my mom gave me an antique but still usable sewing machine, so I tried making a pad like Lauren wrote about. It turned out okay, function-wise, and it was fun to do. So I'll be practicing my stitching and making some more! I'll write about it later, but at the moment, I'm excited to have some baby pads in colors I like, with a forward-enough cut to accommodate my ridiculous saddle, with wither relief, and with girth loops. It's true that one could acquire run of the mill baby pads for way less than it'll cost me to make them (and it's quicker to just give Smartpak more of my money), but this is more fun and hopefully will be more functional for me. Don't look too closely at the stitching on this one--it's a prototype to see if I could do it before I invested in all different thread colors and piping and whatnot. I'll learn to sew as I go and these are just for me, so it's all good. If you have even the mildest crafty tendencies, you should try this. If I can do it, so can you.

Post-ride, didn't slip! WINNING.
So thanks to Lauren for helping me find something new to learn while I sit in the career/life/riding holding pattern I'm in, and to Big Red for being so lovely and kind to me. Maybe everything isn't hell? Am I jinxing myself if I say that?

Friday, March 6, 2015

Tricksy Human

What do you have in your pocketses?



Jelly beanses?


Thursday, March 5, 2015

Snow Day Tack Cleaning

It may or may not be apparent to you that I'm the county's leading tack ho. And when it comes to blog land, I'm right up there with SprinklerBandit and Amanda. I have an Antares problem, for sure, that started when I got my saddle. At some point I'll write a post about my used tack and how I acquired the stuff that I have on a serious shoe string budget, but today I'll go through my tack cleaning/rehab process.

I recently had to acquire a new girth for Mo. This horse--with the same saddle, same Ogilvy half pad, same everything--wore a 42" girth when I bought him in August.

I don't know how you wouldn't wanna hug him.

Then he got a little plump so I tracked down a 44". Fast forward to now: He's a solid 50".

Hey, beefcake.
So I THINK we are done expanding here. There's only so much more growing he can do, and if he gets to a 52" girth I'm cutting back on his alfalfa. Thus, I found a stellar deal on a used 50" Antares girth and pulled the trigger. I've been whining lately to SB and Tracy and anyone who will listen about how my tack is clean because I'm not using it because IT IS THE WORST WINTER EVER. And tack cleaning is a major part of my self-care. I dunno, it releases some endorphins or whatever.

Today is a genuine snow day here in northwestern Virginia. Even my daycare center is closed, so I get the day off work (unpaid, of course, but whatever).

So I dragged out Mo's new girth, which I was pleased with when it arrived, but which clearly did not belong to someone who treasured it the way I will.

Before pics:

Next step: Get a bucket of hot water and the Higher Standards Leather Care cleaner. Because I'm a human on the internet, so I don't use any other soap. I start by using the sponge and cleaning the whole thing that way. And then I break out the toothbrush for any seams (and this girth has a lot of seams) as well as spots with grunge built up, which you can see the underside of the girth had.

One day M saw me cleaning my bridle with a toothbrush.
"Get a hobby," she said.
Let's recall that she graduated Pony Club with her A
and has gone to Rolex. And is a National Examiner. Ha.

After I use the toothbrush with soap, I wipe the whole girth down with a rag, and I get the toothbrush out again. This time, I just get it wet. This is the step that makes the biggest difference: I clean out all the seams with a clean, wet toothbrush. This is how you get the hairs out, and the soap scum, and all that other grunge that makes girths less than perfect.

Then I take a corner of the rag and dry out all those seams. Takes a minute, but it's a minute well spent.

Next step: Conditioning. I don't condition my tack every day. That would be time consuming and bad for the leather, but this girth needed it, and I was cleaning tack because I felt like it. So I broke out the Antares leather conditioner (which I use on Antares stuff and other really nice leather I have, but not on just whatever. Effax is fine for Mo's Harwich bridle, for instance). Antares conditioner, for those who haven't used it, has about the consistency of a body butter kind of lotion. You really have to rub it in, but the effects are fabulous (and not necessarily clear in the pictures). The leather is so soft and silky that I want to cry when I touch it.

And at the end, I have a girth that I know for a fact would pass the US Pony Club formal inspection at the A level, but is also broken in. And it makes me unspeakably happy.

Sigh. So that's how I spent a solid 30 minutes of my morning, and it was well worth it. The only problem is, now the girth is clean! NOW WHAT?