there’s no need to be a dick about it

Last week I mentioned that my rides were full of revelation, dusted with glimpses of glory, and glistening with the ghosts of my past bursting with hidden potential!!  Even if only one of those four three things is true, it was a week filled with learning. And one of the most impactful revelations, as I was asking Murray to use his body in more correct and possibly slightly uncomfortable ways, was that there’s no need to be a dick about it.

dressage1No need to be a dick about it, right Murray?

When Murray is tense and not working over his back he isn’t doing it for no reason — there’s legitimate tension and fear there that we need to work through.  And that progress is going to come slowly, as Murray gains confidence in the new way I’m asking him to move and carry himself.  He’s not going to develop a springier trot with suspension by running away from scary lions (or my whip), and he’s not going to lean into the bridle and stay steady in the connection if he thinks that those lions are possibly going to leap out at him from every corner.

And that’s all fine.  We will never make progress if we don’t push outside of our comfort zone.  But I don’t need to be a dick about it.  I have a prefrontal cortex and the ability to understand that deliberate practice and careful repetition will make us better, stronger, and more capable.  Murray has a brain that is smaller than one of his testicles would have been, had he been allowed to keep them, and knows that working this way makes him feel funny and isn’t as much fun as, say, rolling in a pasture or napping in his paddock.

Image result for chimp brain vs testicleA chimpanzee’s brain (background) compared to one of its testicles (foreground) – lest you think I was exaggerating earlier

So I get to ask Murray to do things that are hard and uncomfortable, but I only get to do it politely and kindly, and praise him when he does the right thing.  If I were better at riding, I’d ask perfectly, respond perfectly, and then praise him more quickly than I do.  But I’m not (and quite frankly, he’s not so peachy keen about learning himself), so he can deal.  We’ll do hard things and uncomfortable things, and then we’ll take a break — no need to drill, no need to ask at Volume 10 what could have been asked at Volume 2, and no need to nitpick the little things that I feel should have been accomplished by now.

But the same thing goes for him — if he wants me to play nice, he has to put in an honest effort.  Sometimes he’s great; I can feel the confusion leaving his body and we get to a good place using more than time.  And some days, that just doesn’t happen (sometimes that’s okay, but mostly that’s a no go).  He knows that leg on does mean something, and it means that something for more than one disgusting inverted step.


It’s a hard line to walk, and because I generally try not to be an asshole I tend to fall a little far on the side of “that’s okay”.  But we’re tightening everything up this fall, including our cues and our expectations.  An honest effort is all I expect out of both of us — and for both of us to stop being dicks about it.

embrace the suck

Since I started riding properly again, I’ve been floored by how much work Murray and I still have to do.  It wasn’t that I thought our skills and riding were amaaaaayyyzing when I was hardly riding, it was more that if I was only riding once or twice a week it seemed like a lot of effort to tackle something really hard only to have it go un-reinforced for a few days (or weeks).  It was easier just to… not.  But now that we’re back at it, I’ve realized we kinda really suck.  And I’m loving it!

yves7we r so gud at obedience

There is so much room for improvement, and with these ideals in mind I’m ready to tackle it all.  So what if we spend close to 45 minutes just connecting to both reins and moving into the connection?  Sometimes, evidently, it takes professionals that long too!

So let’s do this. And let’s do it right. (Cue Home Depot music.)

dress-1and we r so gud at dressage

We’re going to have a consistent, even connection to both reins.  No more pussy footing around on this one.

Leg will mean something — for me AND Murray!  No more nagging on my part, and no more ignoring cues on his.

I will keep my leg under me and stop swinging it all the way back towards Murray’s haunches for no good reason.  I’m also going to use my body properly, sit up straight, and not block Murray’s movement with weird shoulda leans.

And we will go forward and straight.  The hardest thing for us.  This, I anticipate, will occupy 95% of our time — accepting that forward and straight is the ONLY solution.  But that’s okay.  We’ve got nothing but time.

dress-4forward + straight is the only way

Let’s do this.

(PS I wrote this on the weekend and somehow the internet ate it — the first time that’s happened to me on this blog!  Or maybe I was just drunk and didn’t really write it? Anyway, I liked the old version more but this one will suffice as a re-write, I guess.)

how to clip your recalcitrant horse 101

A tutorial from the trenches!!

I’ve clipped the rather recalcitrant Murray without drugs two years in a row now, which makes me certifiably a professional an expert.  And lezbehonest, if I can train MURRAY to accept being clipped, I can surely do anything.  Right?!

So let’s go in to detail on this process.  Because absolutely honestly, if Murray can learn to accept clipping, pretty much any horse can learn to accept clipping.  (Let’s recap his former objections: pulling back and somersaulting in the cross ties, laying down and refusing to get up, rearing, sitting down, and requiring 2cc of ace and a twitch to get the job done.)


1. Make a battle plan

When I decided I was legitimately going to train Murray to clip I knew that I’d have to fundamentally change his association with the clippers from “no fucking way this is happening” to “okay”.  For Murray this was a combination of pairing the aversive stimulus (sound of clippers, sight of clippers, feel of clippers) with a positive stimulus (carrots! mints! pats and praise aren’t worth shit to him) and flooding.

To start with, I could just turn on the clippers and treat Murray for staying put and approaching the clippers.  But he quickly figured out that he could rapidly approach and run away quickly and I was gullible enough to treat him for that.  So I had to evolve to making sure that the clippers were actually on Murray’s body and he was standing still before he got any treats.  If he didn’t want the clippers on him, then we stepped into the flooding — sometimes, you just gotta get those bad boys on your bad boy, ya know?


2. Practice early and practice often

Murray had a good training history and understood the basics of the training game, and teaching him to tolerate the clippers took 8 weeks of near-daily practice.  This year, I started practicing again about two weeks ago, and probably could have used more practice.

Don’t forget that the clippers themselves aren’t the only weird stimulus that shows up on clipping day.  There’s the show sheen, extension cords, spray coolant, cursing etc.  All of these things are worth practicing with, at least a little bit.

img_20161016_125306The “maybe I can still stop now and wait for his hair to get longer” stage

3. Persist

Don’t expect everything to go perfectly even with weeks of practice.  Unless you decided to clip a really large segment of your horse as practice, you’re going to be clipping in longer stretches than you ever practiced for on your clipping day.  Murray’s response, for the last two years, has been to come out the gate with his mind firmly set that this was bullshit.  So he was extra hateful.  But I just made like we were practicing and started with small sections and kept going.

Murray got worse before he got better, and wiggled and danced and evaded a fair bit until I laid down the law.  Murray is willing to expend a really, really, ridiculously large amount of effort in figuring out new and inventive ways to not do the thing he doesn’t want to do (even though it would all be easier if he just fucking did it).  Sometimes, he just needs a reminder that trying to pull back and run off is straight up unacceptable and so is biting me in the fucking head while I’m clipping his chest.

img_20161016_130720This hair tie helped keep me going

4. Regret your choices — keep going anyway

At some point, you’ll reach the point of no return.  This was actually highly beneficial for me, because it made me more motivated to get Murray to stand the fuck still and actually behave.  I tied up his hair so that I could get a clean mane line, started going for the belly (a curiously not-that-ticklish zone, and oh-so-gratifying to watch the hair fall away from) and Murray generally decided that life was okay.  I still had a pocket full of treats, and gave him one occasionally, but at this point I could get into a good clipping routine and just mash away.

img_20161016_144430Boom goes the dynamite. Murray’s face looks terrifying.

5. Stand back and admire your handiwork!

Honestly, these are the things that responsible breeders and yearling-raisers do to their young horses in order to teach them to tolerate new, terrifying things like clippers.  And yes, many horses are more reasonable than Murray.  But if you’re looking to me for help, your horse is probably not much more reasonable than Murray, is he?!

revelations all over the place

This has been a good week for revelations.  On Tuesday I had a little pre-jump lesson jump school.  These days I like to pop Murray over anything new and weird in the arena before our actual jump lesson so that during my trainer’s valuable time I can focus on jumping exercises, not teaching my horse how to get over a flower box that OH GOD IT MOVED FROM LAST WEEK’S LOCATION.

spankAhem. Yeah.

Anyway, I’ve been trying to bring a little more dressage lyfe into my rides in the jump saddle so that rules and expectations are more clear.  Things like yielding to the outside rein, proper transitions from the hind end, etc. etc.  I hear it will also help our jumping!

Thanks to a conversation with a friend on Monday, I realised yet another thing that Murray has incidentally trick-trained me into doing, which is riding back to front, especially through the transitions.  When I sit up and put my leg on for a transition more often than not Murray sucks back and/or hollows his back and pops his head up.  My natural instinct after that is to wiggle him back down into the connection (because inevitably my reins are too short), and then there’s no transition.  So my choices are between a shitty, hollow transition, or no transition at all — but a proper transition coming from the hind end simply isn’t one of the options.

Instead of focusing on Murray’s face, which is what he “wants” (who know what that horse really wants), I should instead focus on his hind end and getting that transition to happen in a forward fashion.  I tried it a few times, and it was ugly, but it got better as I rode.  So that was neat.

Another revelation came during my canter-trot transitions, when Murray would lean heavily into my hands and almost curl under.  In the past, Murray has occasionally done this to avoid holding himself up and get on the forehand, but more recently he’s just been really heavy in my hands after down transitions.  Since I want him to be more comfortable in that “heavy contact” place, I figured I should let him stay there — in balance, of course — and not bump him up off my hands as has been my wont in the past.

trotthis is probably as curled as he actually is, it just feels insanely curled/heavy to me

Additionally, as we were trotting a circle in this new, heavy contact I notice myself crossing my right hand over Murray’s withers to stop him from falling in so much.  I know that is verboten, but I didn’t realise it was something I did (or maybe it’s not really, except when Murray is really heavy and falling?).  I tried to consciously release my inside rein and push Murray over with my inside leg instead.  It wasn’t terribly successful as he’s quite over that right shoulder and very good at ignoring my right leg, but at least it was more correct.  I hope that with more improved human position (which I forgot to work on during my last few rides, whoops) I can get a higher quality bend out of Murray, and start to chip away at that laterality.

So that’s three new things I learned in one ride!  Four, actually, but the fourth one I will talk about tomorrow.

fake less, expect more

Despite my efforts to appear otherwise, Murray and I have totally been in a riding slump.  I’m not totally out of my not-really-riding mode, and with the batshit schedule I’ve been juggling lately, the quickly rising darkness, and Murray’s level 10 filth at all times thanks to advanced fluff it’s been easy to default to not riding.  So we’ve not made exceptional progress in the fitness or muscle building department (though the fluff is certainly making Murray look more muscular).

The other day I had the pleasure of Megan coming up to visit and, while she was watching me ride, she made a very interesting comment.  Paraphrased: while Murray has made progress in accepting and moving into the contact, he still isn’t totally there and has just found a new place to “fake it” and set his head.  But when he actually moves up (or down) in to the contact he moves better and more correctly, and actually uses his body.

dress-4Ah yes.

I have known for a long time ever that Murray is not comfortable with contact or (honestly) submission, and that our dressage relationship was a tenuous compromise.  For a million reasons — he doesn’t like it, he doesn’t wanna, he doesn’t think he should have to, it’s a little uncomfortable, it’s a lot uncomfortable, dressage is stupid, etc. — Murray is naturally tense.  But that tension isn’t going to work for us if we want to do real derpssage, so we have to get past it.

So one more thing I need to do to get Murray working more correctly is to convince him to not just accept the contact but to lean in to it.  When he is practically “leaning” on my hands is when he is using himself the best, so that is the place I need to get him to.  Easier said than done, sometimes.

If Murray’s in an incredibly compliant mood, like he was at the JM clinic, then I can put a fair bit of pressure on him and get some really good results.  He’ll connect to both reins (helped by the counter flexing that JM had me using in that exercise), understand the half halts, and push from behind for not insignificant periods of time.  If he’s feeling a little sassier, he might give me the old middle finger in that special kind of way he does.

kickslowOn Sunday he gave me forty seven flavors of tiny, shitty trot before connecting to either rein or moving out into anything resembling a working trot.  I worked at keeping my body really correct after reading a piece about laterality and handedness, and predominantly worked Murray’s stiff side (with lots of walk breaks).  Murray did not appreciate my positional overcorrection and avoided the connection to the right.  Once we switched to the left though he was in full denial, throwing his body all kinds of sideways to avoid the connection.  At one point his trot was so tiny and stilted I didn’t even know why I was bothering to post.

Eventually he worked out of it, and I got some good connection in both directions.  It took nearly 40 minutes, and I was filled with equal parts despair and joy.  On the one hand, goodie for me, building the connection.  On the other, how will I ever warm up for a dressage test if it takes us an unknowable number of minutes between 10 and 40 to get to a functional working connection?!

wp-1449989989647.jpgThis ridiculousness is truly infuriating, because I know that the good trot is in there and it probably takes less effort than crazy sideways garbage.  But (for once) I did not lose my temper, and that helped me come to another realization: when Murray is tense, bullying him “out of it” is not going to mad productive, long term changes.

(wait for it)


So even though this is annoying, it’s actually given me a much more concrete goal and rejuvenated my dressage feelz!  Now I have a new thing to focus on in both the short and the long term!  Every ride I need to get Murray moving in to that contact, while staying straight, and then pushing his trot out.  I can’t let him trick me into thinking too much about his face either, because if I’m having connection problems it probably has more to do with what’s going on behind us than up front.

New goals. They are the spice of my life.


Weird dreams are my wheelhouse.  I’ve had incredibly vivid, often recurring, and (fortunately) lucid dreams for my entire life.

For example, one particularly common one from my younger years involved me running away from a T-rex through a specific part of the private school I attended in Australia.  I was running and running and running, but of course, nothing could get me further from my impending doom.  So I would wake myself up because frankly, it’s not worth it to be scared in your sleep.

Image result for t rex jurassic parkNo, I definitely did not watch too much of this movie as a child (or an adult).

I’ve also had lots of strange, strange dreams about horse things.

When I was younger and didn’t ride, I would dream about everything that led up to riding.  I’d carefully groom and tack up a horse to go on a trail ride, but right as we were about to get on I would be woken up to go to school, or snap out of the dream.  EPIC disappointment.  Sometimes I’d go back to sleep and try to replay the dream from the beginning just to get to the riding bit, but of course I’d never get there.  My brain simply didn’t have the data to fabricate a dream about riding, so it wouldn’t.

IMG_3149Because what brain could really fabricate the shit that ACTUALLY happens to me?!

These days my riding dreams involve a fair bit of actual riding, some general interactions with horses, but mostly an absolute ton of weird shit that just would never happen.

Fairly frequently, especially since I competed my first event, I dream that I’m about to go out on cross country but my horse isn’t with me.  Instead, I run the course on foot and jump all the fences on all-fours.  Shockingly there was never a question of whether or not I made time.


I also dream a lot about being late for my dressage tests.  I don’t know why this is so much more important for dressage than other phases, but it is.  Usually it’s just your standard running-late ridiculousness — I’m not tacked up, Murray isn’t groomed, I’m still getting dressed etc. during my ride time — but sometimes there are extra weird things.  Murray will disappear out from under me right as I’m supposed to go into the ring.  I’m lost at a show grounds and can’t figure out where to go.  The funniest one involved me shopping at a really oddly laid out Jo Ann’s fabric for stock tie material, from which I had to then make my stock tie, no more than 45 minutes prior to my ride time.

Even in these dreams I’m like “this is ridiculous!  This is completely ridiculous! I  would never do that!”  Sometimes I don’t wake myself up*, just to see what my idiotic dream self is going to do with the situation.

Most recently I dreamed that I was XC schooling with friends (a very particular group and I knew all the friends and horses, and that part alone was fascinating!).  We were having a lovely time schooling until we got to a funny table that is present on the Camelot XC course (though we weren’t schooling at Camelot at the time; not sure where we were).

IMG_3806This table, to be exact. And it’s bigger than it looks, seriously.

The table was placed on a funny downhill-ish approach, and all of our horses were having trouble with it — everyone had stops.  So we went back up the hill a bit to re-approach.  First, my RBF went to it, and instead of jumping it she somehow ended up laying face down on the jump, planking it (like the fad, not the exercise).  She wasn’t hurt, though her horse was nowhere to be seen.  We walked up to her and asked what had happened, and she said “Oh, I thought I’d try something new as we came up to the fence.”

I personally will not be trying that particular new thing any time soon!

If you have weird horse dreams, I wanna hear them!

* Throughout this post I’ve mentioned waking myself up from dreams, which is something I’ve always been able to do, and until my late teens didn’t realise not everybody could do.  It’s as awesome as it seems, but as far as superpowers go, it’s pretty weak overall.

perfect is the enemy of good

In between setting up for our last one-day horse trials (complete with Hallowe’en themed XC fences! be still my beating heart) and going to Oregon for a family wedding, I have in fact managed to ride my horse a few times.  It’s been magical!  Or something like it.

I'm so excited for the fences we built for the #woodlandstallionstation one day!! We are ready for fall!!!

A photo posted by Nicole Sharpe (@nicolegizelle) on

After some nice easy rides and a few days off post JM clinic, I put Murray back to work and tried to achieve some of the straightness and power that I’d felt during my coached ride.  Murray responded by being insanely wiggly, evasive, and generally noncompliant.  We couldn’t seem to stay straight to save our lives, and at the canter his drifting haunches were so out of control that when I pushed them back into alignment Murray happily responded by changing leads behind.  The most terrifying part was that our ending circle of stretchy trot was filled with that terrifying out-of-control feeling you get when you’re running downhill and gravity starts to overtake your ability to move your own limbs.

I promptly called my trainer and asked for a lesson on the weekend.  I felt a bit better after talking to two more friends and finding out that their horses still had epic clinic hangovers even five days later.  And I saw a fourth horse from the clinic throw a hilarious and epic temper tantrum during a saddle fitting appointment.

dress-3With great exercises comes great responsibility

Knowing that these exercises make Murray pretty sore I’ve been careful to spend lots of time walking before and after my rides, and giving Murray easy days in between the work days.  So far it’s worked out, and I haven’t felt the madly-evasive noodle tactics of that first ride immediately after the clinic.

The harder thing is knowing if I’m feeling what I think I’m feeling or what I should be feeling.  I think we’re going straight, and I feel like Murray is slowing down his front end and taking more weight with his hind end… but is he really?  I could be fooling myself into thinking that’s happening when it’s not.  It definitely feels better, but a lot of things feel better than trying to coordinate four or five separate body parts at the same time.

The other challenge is that Murray has been waaaaaay more forward lately than he was during that lesson.  Really, energy during dressage is pretty uncommon for me, so I’m also not sure what to do with that when it shows up.  And a certain lazy SOB likes to use half halts as an excuse to just go back to an easier gait.  So I have to keep all kinds of energy going there.

So many questions.  Good thing I have lots of time for lessons now!


IWJSJ Blog Hop: Fuuuuuuck yeeeaaaahhh

Approximately a million years ago Beckz started a celebration of being badass.  This was something I totally got behind, and then didn’t post on my blog for like a month.  You know, because life.  So here are some belated yet still celebratory pictures of feeling awesome.

I came back from Africa and took myyyyy brand new baby horse cross country schooling just seven weeks later…


The first time we jumped the quarter round.  I was deliriously happy.

If you can't be kind, be quiet

I was completely obsessed with this canoe.


We didn’t finish the event (at BN), but my trainer took me out to school anyway (and let me jump one training fence)!


Conquering the stupid downhill log…


And up for good measure…


I jumped this novice down bank. IN A COMBINATION. After not riding for essentially a month. LOL WUT.


And a few not related to the notorious one! The first time I ever jumped 3’3″… with the Mighty Mouse.  This tiny bit of badassery carried me through for a looong time.

might bigger

In my first competition XC run, over the last fence!


Bonus: baby Nicole KILLIN’ IT on this funny-lookin’ palomino


teach me tuesday: good hands

Having good hands is something I aspire to.  I’d like to think that I have soft hands, because even though I tend toward too long of reins I’m quick to slip them or release, and I can follow decently.  Also, I’m a big mane grabber — so at least I’m not balancing on my horse’s mouth.


But what I really want to talk about is how people are taught to ride, and what they do with their hands then.  Because I see an awful lot of riders getting pulled up out of the tack by their hands and I’m like… don’t we all know we’re not supposed to be doing that, right?


Some horses are more sensitive than others, of course.  I think if I’d tried to haul myself over a fence on Murray’s mouth when he was four, five, or six (or honestly, even now) he’d be like UMM EXCUSE ME pretty hard.  But Quincy was just a fucking trooper of a five year old and was happy to drag me over whatever.  He was the best.

So I wonder: how do you think the way we are taught to ride influences our proclivity to haul on our horses’ faces?  I honestly don’t remember a ton of my training as it pertained to hands in the horses immediately prior to Murray, but Murray let me know early and often that he was not comfortable with a constant contact.  Especially not my shitty, incompetent, amateur contact.  He would accept a loose rein or march his ass backwards to the barn and that was that.  So a loose rein it was, and I learned to steer with my legs and seat.

I hear a lot of instructors (including some of my early ones) telling their students to keep a steady pressure or contact on the reins.  Inevitably, you see a lot of nooblets pulling themselves up and down and up and down at the trot on their charming, patient, lovely lesson horses’ mouths.  I also understand the lure of holding on to those reins — without them, you can’t pull your horse up quickly if they do something stupid and before you learn to steer properly they are your steering wheel.  Not everybody likes to ride around on gigantic, unfamiliar beasts all “Jesus take the wheel!”


We know that one can’t have good hands without something of an independent seat, but are we shooting ourselves in the foot by teaching students to ride so much with their hands from early on?  Is there another option?

Based on my experience with Murray, I really feel that it would be better for students to learn to ride with a loop in their reins and still steer, brake, and balance.  Sure, learning in this order has created some problems for me (like a general reluctance to feel pressure on the reins, and an inability to hold up the weight of my own hands), but I think it’s avoided other bigger problems: I don’t balance on my hands (mostly) and I don’t throw my entire body forward over the fences in an attempt to not hit my horse in the mouth (mostly; I do it for other reasons though).

So why do we teach our students to hold the reins in such a way that they end up balancing on their horses’ mouths?  Every student is going to balance on her horse’s mouth to learn to post at first, but after you find your balance point why keep doing it?  Why let someone balance on their horse’s mouth as they are two-pointing around?  Or am I seeing a hugely biased sample of young amateurs at small shows that are friendly to nooby riders?

2002_riding_n2_2Ok so lots of little kids with long reins in this pic… but we were also walking.

So tell me, how were you taught to hold or keep contact on the reins when you learned to ride?  Is there something I’m missing here because, shut up Nicole, you’ve been riding for ten minutes in a very small geographical location?  Has it changed since you were taught to ride?  Do you see young students riding differently now than when you were a student?  Am I full of shit and it really is better to learn to ride with contact because [valid reasons]?

It just seems to me that there’s a better way, and I wonder why more students and riders aren’t employing it.

(F)transformation Friday

New media means that I get to make some Murray comparisons.  And oh boy, is it worth it.

Camelot – June 2015
Subtext: let me see you bounce left and right and see ya shoulda lean…



November(ish) 2015
Subtext: I learned how to keep my reins the same length!


February 2016
Subtext: I like these, and I love how round the top of Murray’s haunches look, but these were the best moments in a lot of fussing…



May 2016
Subtext: Megan started getting us on the right path….

IMG_8822-2 IMG_8849

September 2016
Subtext: I conveniently wore the same outfit for comparison purposes

I like almost everything about this one better… dress-2
But I adore the bulging quads on this one

Surprise pop quiz: how many different saddles am I using in these images?!  And when oh WHEN will I ever get my lower leg under control?!?!