learnin’ and burnin’

I still have a ton to write about from blogging hiatus (jump lessons, amazing biomechanics clinic, clicker training, etc.) but this weekend was too fun to skip, so we’ll have to fast forward a little and rewind later.

First, I got to hang out with this super cool friend and watch her show 3rd level for the first time!

murdering the mediums

I don’t have a lot of experience with dressage shows, and when I have been it’s always with my MIL who has shown pretty extensively and is campaigning her mares for year end awards. It’s a bit different for someone looking for scores at a level when getting out there for the first time. There are lots of different aspects of test riding that I’ve never thought of before — like maximizing points in certain movements, vs. generally trying to make the whole test “better” (a nebulous term if ever there was one).

And then that same super cool friend came and rode my notorious ottb!

not ready for 3rd yet — maybe next month
PS my friend is Kate, if you haven’t yet recognized her

Murray doesn’t love when other butts touch his back. He’s a one-butt kinda guy. But it was fabulous watching Kate torture him work through his ridiculousness (and smile while she did it), and encourage him to be better. Murray thought Kate was demanding and opinionated and let her know it.  She just smiled and kept nudging those opinions onto him.

we tried to make him go to rehab — he said no, no, no

We traded back and Kate made some suggestions to help me also convince Murray to be better. Murray was like “oh thank GOD you are back I’ll do anything you want  just don’t let that bossy lady sit on me again!” He was immediately much more forward, and Kate helped me work on slowing his movement down and sucking myself down into the saddle. I wish I had the ability to write gobs and gobs about it, but I was hot and tired and I think the Cliffs notes version is all I can get out.

  • Pillow the aids into Murray so he gets past the reactionary leg on –> FLAIL –> do the thing. We want leg on –> do the thing. Put the leg on, waaaaiiiiit for Murray to stop trying to flick my leg off with his skin, and then ask for the movement or transition or whatever.
  • Slow the post methodically — a slow rise, and a slow descent. Keep the post big, but don’t let Murray throw me around with his boopy hips.
  • Push up with the toes and the knees to keep the feet light and suck the seat bones down into the saddle.
  • Kneel more in the sitting trot — do not let my toes slide forward too far.
  • When my leg goes on, Murray should push into the bridle.
  • Shorten the reins but don’t lean with the shoulders. Don’t give up the connection, work to improve the connection. We want him to be almost heavy in the bridle. My triceps should hurt after riding him. It’s not actually going to happen, but we want to move toward this type of feel since Murray so desperately wants the opposite of it.
  • Keep the core strong — don’t get floppy through the middle. In any of it — transitions, posting, sitting trot, etc.
  • Do not use zero contact (floppy rein) as a reward.

I was proud of how well Mr. No responded — generally — to a stranger riding him. His previous method of objection was to brace on his underneck and hollow his back and take teeny, tiny, itsy, bitsy little anger steps. For the most part, Murray moved forward and into(ish) the bridle, and only had flaily responses when Kate put her leg on (shocker). This is pretty big progress for the big bad baby, and exciting for me that he’s understanding more and more what we want his default to be.

There was this  moment when I was adding positive tension to what felt like every single muscle in my body below my boobs, and trying to post super slowly, and bear down, and breathe, and it was hot and humid and muggy in the indoor. I looked out of the indoor and it was beautiful and sunny and blue and green and yellow — the mustards are blooming still. And I thought “oh it’s so beautiful and gorgeous and heavenly out there.” Then I turned my head back to the inside of the arena where it was dark and brown and gray and sweaty and hard. And I was like “why am I torturing myself in this hell again?” Then Kate told me to do something else with my body — I don’t know what, probably to suck less — and I did it even though it hurt, and I wasn’t outside in the beautiful blue and green and gold sunshiney mustard flowers. Because that’s how we get better.


such a magnificent beast

If possible, I’ve gotten to know Murray even better over the last four or five months.  We have been spending a lot of time together — and not all that much of it was focused on under-saddle skills. In this time, he has shown himself to be a truly magnificent beastie. I mean, even more magnificent than we thought he was before.

I mean, please. What other creature can just …. pause on his withers mid roll?! And look so fantastic while doing it?

He looks like he should be sitting at a desk in an office, tapping away at his blog posts while his coworkers complain about everything a few cubes over.

Our goofing off has managed to be pretty productive, though. It’s so easy to cop out of riding when the weather gets rough. (Call me a baby, but even riding in the indoor isn’t all that appealing when the wind and rain are coming in sideways. Maybe it’s just the tacking up portions that I want to avoid?) So I often opt to turn Murray out in the arena for a little bit instead. And after a good roll and some screaming and flailing, Murray would come to me without fail and offer to play training games with me.

for example, Murray is now learning to lunge himself!

Which was a great time to get him walking back and forth over poles, practicing moving different parts of his body around, or generally getting him to think about or focus on me.

Our arenas have also been undergoing construction (laser leveling and new footing! thanks new owner!), which has made this a good opportunity to despookify the Murr-man to heavy equipment.

does dis give cookiez?

We will touch all the machines!

One of the last games I added in to our repertoire was walking over small cross rails, and finally jumping them. Murray isn’t a huge fan of free jumping.  He’ll walk over pretty much any small X, but is not really into jumping them on his own. And never more than once. I never got it on video, but I did get him to trot toward and launch over fences in the arena a couple of times.  It was always hilarious and always incredible.

will walk over anything below elbow height though!

And Murray just kept getting sounder and happier. So we celebrated by taking a real jump lesson. Which was awesome, and led up to our Fresno school — the results of which you already saw.

I love this ridiculous beastie. He’s brought so much fun and laughter and perspective to me. He never lets me take myself — or us — too seriously.

And he’s just so damn magnificent.

notorious ottb makes his triumphant return to intro-level eventing!!!

A couple of weeks (March 23rd! ugh! so long ago!) before the #toitnups I got to take Murray to Fresno to school XC, which was a good way to knock a couple of goals off my list and have some maaaaajor flashbacks to four-year-old Murray.

Murray marched out to cross country at a strange place boldly and with only a few idiot moments as we crossed tiny ravines or gravelly rivulets from the intense recent rains. The fantastic thing about Fresno is that it’s super sandy and just soaks up the water like nbd, so the course had a couple of mucky spots but was, overall, in pretty good shape.

As was Murray’s attitude.

let me tell you what i think of this perfectly nice, well-groomed track

We got out on XC and Murray was like “ahh, no, I won’t be trotting around in straight lines or circles, thanks all the same”. He kept turning in off the tracks (where the gopher holes were rife) and balking. He was a little ball of tension, so I just focused on giving him a job without putting on too much pressure: just go forward and steer-ish and all will be forgiven.

And then the train came.

A really, really long train. Right along that track that you can see just behind us in that picture above.

To his credit, Murray did not utterly lose his shit like the last time we encountered a train. He did, however, decide he was going back to the trailers. Now.

So he would turn toward the trailers and I would turn him back onto the course, and he would turn toward the trailers, and I would turn him back toward the course. In this manner we made our squiggly way 50 meters or so away from my trainer, but managed to at least stay out on cross country.

We warmed up over a little cabin, which Murray stopped at the first time and was like “err what is this again?” But after that he was pretty much on board with the jumping thing.  It was just getting to and from the jumps that was unexpectedly difficult.

Our next set of antics came as we approached a log box with 3-4 strides after landing to a steep downhill. I was pretty worried about the whole steering + Murray + downhill, so when he came to a stop at the log box I decided we’d have to tackle that question another day. Instead, I tried to ask Murray to settle down and canter politely in a circle in the grass.

To which he responded thusly.

Which was, of course, greatly appreciated by everyone involved. Especially the people trying to have a dressage show just across the way from Murray’s absurd antics. Sorry, dressage peeps!

At this point it was pretty clear that I was going to have to come back to Fresno if I intended to get any serious schooling done, so I decided we’d just go back to the baby basics: walk around, jump some easy jumps, try not to be a freak show.

Murray seemed settled enough at the walk and marched around the course just fine, but he was really spooked by the bigger fences and whenever I asked him to canter he started to flail around and go sideways. Every time. Pretty much until we were right in front of a fence, at which point he’d sit back on his butt and drag us over the fence. It was… confusing.

I realized at the end of the day that this was pretty much exactly what Murray used to do when we would take him schooling as a 5 year old. It took me a while to remember that. But I used to only be able to canter him if we were 8-12 strides out from a fence, and never in a group.

yes, my favourite thing ever is re-training the horse i hope to take novice in 6 weeks over intro fences.

The new monkey wrench in the ride was that upon landing Murray would immediately throw his head in the air and pull hard to the right. Which he had kinda done since we started jumping again this year, but was accentuated to an absurd degree while we were schooling.

We did still manage to get some good fences in. And, a train came by not one, not two, but three more times while we were out there (after which it came never again that day). Each time Murray got progressively less anxious and slightly more angry. During the passing of the third train he even managed to anger-eat a few bites of grass! I imagine that he’s thinking of the grass as me, and biting into it with all  the feels he wishes he could gnaw into my flesh. Or maybe he’s imagining he’s killing a train. Who knows.

Overall not the most productive schooling outing ever, but there were definitely some positive moments. We can still mostly jump, I can still mostly not fall off my horse, and our steering showed definite improvement as the day went on.

A week later during a jump lesson I discovered the likely cause of all the flailing and pulling right upon landing: the flocking on the panels behind Murray’s shoulders is pushing into his newly-formed-and-oh-so-ripped topline muscles. Which is a good thing because yay topline! But it’s a bad thing because I literally just got my saddle reflocked, and think I’m outside of the 30-day free callback that my fitter offers.

Ultimately, I decided not to enter the Fresno HT because there just wasn’t enough time… with wedding planning, job crazinesss, and my horse coming back into the world of jumping like he’s a four year old (just bigger, stronger, and cleverer than before), there was just no way could get the two of us ready in time.

and uh… whatever this is

But we’re back at it! And there will be plenty more shows for us to flail around at later this year. In the mean time, there will be plenty of flailing Murray antics to enjoy!

adventures in the annals of equine research

I’ve got a super exciting thing happening soon, which I’ll be able to announce next week. This super exciting thing has me delving into equine research journals. And, people, there is gold in there.


also gold: stalking this handsome creature!!

Nugget the First, the Journal of Equine Veterinary Medicine publishes some of its articles open-access. This means that the authors pay a lot more money in order to make those manuscripts freely available to the public. I’ve got institutional access at work, so I don’t know exactly which ones are free and which ones aren’t (this is a hint). But there is a lot of good stuff on there, and tons of it is bound to be free.

Nugget the Second:

yes, please tell me everything about this mysterious sporthorse stallion “hindquarter movement”

Nugget three: I found this super neat site, Equestology: Sport Horse Science. They write reviews of peer-reviewed manuscripts, and have some amazingly fascinating stuff on there!  For example, a discussion of horse facial expressions during lameness. Or an in-depth analysis of how rider position differs between beginner and advanced dressage riders. I mean, on the one hand I’m super sad that my dream job of translating horsey science for the horsey public has already been taken.  On the other, what an amazing resource!! I can’t wait to read more.

Three gold nuggets is more than I’ve found in quite a while! And now I dive back in to learn more about hindquarter movements of —  I mean, equine science in general.

hippo v. lipless hippo!!

human dancing == pony prancing

In anticipation for Toit Nups, the boy and I are taking dancing lessons. I knew this was something we should do. BF has always been into dancing and has wanted me to do social dance with him for years (literally 10 of them, he asked if we could take dance classes the second year we were together).  So even if it wasn’t at the top of my list of “must do”s, I wanted to take dance lessons. So that I didn’t look like a fool on this highly photographed night, and because someone I love wanted to do it.

All that said, I was feeling weirdly shaky and emotional walking into our first dance lesson. Not confident at all, and with that weird feeling behind the eyes that suggests tears are on their way. Which is not really how you want to enter a new learning paradigm.

So we started dancing. (We’re doing a rumba, in case you’re curious.) And at some point I asked our dance instructor Christy about how much pressure I should be putting into her head, as she demonstrated how I was to follow.  She returned a thorough and lengthy response about how some people like a firmer lead than others, but for her the amount of pressure I was giving back to her as the lead was just right.

And I was like “Oh, okay. I know how this works. It’s like contact.” I perked up a lot after that.

A little later, we were talking about something else — I think steering. Christy was telling the boy that he needs to guide clearly and concisely when leading, and have a plan so that I, as the follower, have an easy job of following.

That’s when it clicked.

This is just riding.

Only I’m the horse.

who’s a pretty pony? you both are!!

So here are a few things I’ve learned about riding from dance lessons in the last week.

Rhythm is essential

I have great rhythm and timing. I can count to four, I can find a beat in a song, and I find it nigh-on INTOLERABLE when a cloud is clapping in time and the beat slowly gets faster.  The boy has zero timing.  ZERO.

Do you know how hard it is to have rhythm when the person leading you has no rhythm? When you’re stepping to four and he’s stepping to three, it’s literally not possible to maintain a four beat rhythm.

Dear beginner riders: if you’re reading this, for the love of all that is good in this world, do not fuck with your horse’s rhythm.

Plan the fuck ahead

So not only does my dear future husband have no rhythm, he also doesn’t have a plan and it is literally the worst and most infuriating thing ever.  Sure, we can go around and around and around in endless circles as we sloooow-quick-quick-sloooow-quick-quick around the box that rhumba prescribes.

Without a plan, we can do at best one or two movements before we peter out into nothingness (or just endless basic steps). Worse is when BF doesn’t have a plan and tries to make things up on the fly and mashes two movements together, or tries to do something and just massively flubs it. Unfortunately, this just reinforces crappy habits and bad muscle memory sooooo yeah, I’m hoping to avoid this as much as possible.

We’re obviously getting better at the “have a plan” thing.  Evidently having a plan (and dancing the plan!) is a skill you need to practice. But not having a plan is the pits.

plan ahead, Nicole. do not forget your girth at a show, Nicole. do not sprain your knee the day before a show, Nicole!!

Meet your partner halfway

Nobody is convincing me to be a stronger follow by pushing into me more. In fact, it’s a lot easier for me to follow our dance instructor, who has a much lighter contact, than it is to follow my actual partner. I’ve been working hard at convincing him to lighten up, but in the mean time I have to push back at least a little bit.

I mean, in this scenario I’m the horse. So yeah, it would be nice if our horses could think it through and meet us halfway. But they can’t (necessarily). Which suuuucks, but is what we get for not riding motorcycles.


I am just like my horse

In every conflict we have in our dance lessons, I am Murray. Not just in the “Nicole is the horse here” analogy. I have the exact same problems as Murray. BF wants a lot more contact than I do. He tends to push his hand into mine with more force than I want, and in response I just back off. Just like Murray.

I have a tendency to try to take over and lead. The second my partner doesn’t have a plan, I just take over and start doing my own thing. No need to worry, fearless leader! I’ve got this. Now where are we going?

Nope, nothing like the horse I know and love. Nothing.

at least I don’t throw pony tantrums when something unexpected happens?

I am a terrible, terrible anticipator. Are we turning now? Now? Is it now? Did we do three turns last time? So three again this time, right? No? Five? WHAT. We did a change of direction here last time, are we doing it again?

Yeah so. Three dancing lessons have given me a really ridiculous amount of perspective on riding and an insane amount of sympathy for the garbage that I put my horse through.

I only hope I’m a better rider than my future husband is a dancer!

the jury’s still out, but one can hope

hiatus benefits

Winter arrived late this year, or perhaps it returned from a temporary hiatus to Hawaii, and about five weeks ago it suddenly became frigidly cold and then started pouring. Which is normal winter weather but after days approaching 70 felt like a really nasty trick by mother nature.  This coincided with ramping Murray back up into work and trying to get fit for the first show we could possibly make it to this year, April Fresno. (A show which is horribly, terribly coincidental with Rolex Kentucky 3DE,  so…. I will be following the live tweeting I guess?)  This has kinda made our hiatus longer than expected, but not terribly so; and I’m trying to put the work in regardless.

I expected Murray to be a) super unfit and b) really unhappy with the getting-back-to-work situation. But I’ve been shocked really very pleasantly surprised.  He’s happy to come to work, and pretty happy to listen t me during work. I mean, he’s still Murray. He still bucks and screams and exorcises the bad feelings by shooting them out of his butt.  But when he’s not doing that, he’s working.  Even better, we’re working together.

And boy-o is way stronger and more muscular than before, especially through his topline. To which I can hear you saying “woah woah woah now Nicole, you let your horse languish in a stall and pasture for 20 weeks and he got more topline? now I know you’re smoking the ganja”, but I’m not. I swear. Sure, he’s a little huskaroo right now. But I found a conditioning program (by the fabulous Jec Ballou) pretty early on that emphasized walking, stretches, and calisthenic exercises (poles) to help a horse keep topline and fitness during downtime. And I did it. Religiously Scientifically. I have walked my horse over so many freaking poles this year, probably more than in the first four years we were together combined.

he’s put on even more muscle since I took this photo

Oh, and poles. We can do them now. Not like “I can hurl myself in a disorganized and inconsistent fashion at these sticks on the ground and hope it turns out all right oh GOD ITS NOT ALL RIGHT HELP”. More like “I can trot to these poles at a steady pace and if I need to stretch out over them I can push from behind”. This is a horse who chipped into trot poles literally 50% of the time from 2013-2017. Not kidding. And now he trots calmly toward them, and, unless there’s a huge question or some kind of majorly weird thing going on, just trots right through them. WITH HIS HEAD DOWN.

will walk over x-rails for treatz

Murray now has way better longitudinal balance, and his lateral balance is getting there. I worked pretty hard to reward him for walking and trotting around while stretching over his topline, so now it’s something he just offers to me because he knows he gets cookies for it. It’s like the lunging and liberty work doing this unlocked his ability to actually use his back and his abs — both on the ground and under saddle. He trots around in a halter (on a lunge or at liberty) with his head down, stretching over his back now. It’s the best trick ever!  (I think this is part of what helped him with the trot poles, as he can problem solve without needing to tighten his back line and tense up.)

And his tail grew. I know it’s a big thing but I’ve lamented his thin and somewhat sad tail for a while now. I vowed not to bang it and to be very careful brushing it while he was on stall rest so that when we got back to work I’d have this big reveal of LOOK MAGNIFICENT TAIL!  A new pasture buddy foiled that plan by chewing half of it off at his hocks in December, and then the rest of it got so long that Murray started stepping on it and pulling it out in his stall.  So I banged it and gave him some light layers, and it still looks thicker and fuller than before, if a titch shorter than I might like.

also: less spooky and not afraid of strange heavy machinery any more

It’s hard to enumerate the benefits we reaped over our 4.5 month break. I expected to have a long uphill climb after taking the time off, but it’s just… not the case. Murray came back sounder, smarter, and happier to work, and I learned a lot about riding, training, and how to teach my horse. Which is kinda crazy to think about, because I feel that we were in a pretty good place even before we went on hiatus. Murray had just saved my butt all over Camelot, and we were hammering out some pretty essential riding/training kinks. To be feeling better than that is pretty baller.

Don’t get me wrong — I have also learned (and continue to learn) about some of the (many) fuckups I’ve made in training this horse over the last four years (see above re: can’t do trot poles). But I also feel like this break showed me how reversible they are, and how to avoid making them again in the future. So… if I make more mistakes it’s okay, we’ll just fix them.

It’s good to be feeling good!

pony stuff for mf’in adults: seconds pro app

I take my horse’s fitness seriously. There are a lot of things we can’t change about our horses, but fitness isn’t one of them. There is a lot we can do to help out our equine partner’s fitness, and I’m a firm believer that we should.

I also swam competitively all the way through high school, and one thing we would never be without when swimming was a clock. Workouts were written up on a big whiteboard that we could all see from the edge of the pool, and a huge minute clock with a moving second hand sat next to it.  We hauled ass to get through our 200s and 400s within the allotted time, caught a precious five or ten seconds of rest on the wall, and then did it all again. Over. And over. And over.

I can write out my horse’s fitness workouts, but timing the sets is a much bigger challenge. I no longer ride with a watch for a variety of reasons (not the least of which being that my boyfriend takes it off and hides it under the bed when I’m sleeping because it ticks too loudly), and despite many attempts to the contrary we’ve never managed to keep a clock in the arena for more than a few months.  Plus it’s hard to catch a glimpse at a clock that isn’t a jumbotron as you canter past anyway.

When I started bringing Murray back into work seriously I became even more interested in a proper way to time my rides. My eventing watch only beeps on minute intervals, and that isn’t good enough for me — you still have to keep track of how many have passed and how many you have to go before the next set, which get really difficult when you have complicated sets planned out (for example: walk 2 min, trot 3 min, walk 1 min, trot 2 min, canter 1 min, trot 2 min, canter 1 min, trot 2 min — where was I in that set again?). Cell phone alarms definitely didn’t cut it — I have no interest in fumbling with my phone to get one alarm turned off and another set.

Enter: Seconds Pro. (~$4.99)

Interval training is really popular, so I knew there had to be an app out there to solve my problems — something that would let me customize my horsey workouts so that I’d know exactly where I was in the ride and exactly how much time I had left to go. I shopped around a bunch and the internet seemed to agree that Seconds Pro, though pricey, had all the options I could ever want in a pony fitness app.

at left: setting up a workout. at right: what a workout looks like while you’re workin’ and outin’.

Seconds Pro lets you customize your workouts (duh, what’s the point otherwise) and automatically counts its way through the workout after you initiate the timer.  There are different countdown options so you can have your phone tell you exactly what you’re supposed to be doing next in its weird robot voice: Trot Warm Up Left, phone lady tells me. So I trot left.

You can choose left and right splits, so if you want to trot for 4 minutes total and be told when to change directions, the phone lady will do that too! (Or you can have an unobtrusive beeper let you know, your choice.) You can also add pretty colours! I don’t bother. To make your life easy, if you’re interested in doing a bunch of short sets, you can set up one workout and then loop it X number of times — so easy.

so many beeps, so little time

I feel like I’m underselling this app, but it is SERIOUSLY AWESOME.  As you can see from the screen shots, I already started using it for regular rides with the Zookini.  Have you ever trotted a really forward horse who likes to lean into your hands for 2 minutes in each direction when you’re really out of shape? I was begging for those beeps. BUT THEN I STILL HAD TO CANTER FOR 90 SECONDS EACH DIRECTION WTFFFFF.

I was so ambitious. I set just two, 3-minute walk breaks.

I totally took more walk breaks.


I think that Seconds Pro is going to be an awesome tool for horsey and human fitness — those trot sets are totally going to happen, and are actually going to be as long as they are supposed to be.

Oh gawd what have I done to myself.