Africa Fridays: a chance at a full life

Sometimes when chimps live in social isolation for a really long time they just want to be with humans for the rest of their lives – they truly, legitimately believe that they are people and should not have to live with other chimps.  Poco was like this.  He spent much of his day following people around, making faces at them, gazing into their eyes and, inevitably at the end of the day, becoming incredibly frustrated that he couldn’t be with people and resultingly beating the crap out of one of the other chimps.

IMG_3401Poco did occasionally make observations hard.

But other chimps seem to know, immediately when they meet their own species, that that is who they are supposed to be with.  Gashuehe was one of these.

I first met Gashuehe in 2011, when he had been living at the sanctuary for a little less than a year.  He was confiscated from an auto parts/destruction yard, where he had lived for the last 11 years in a small cage.  When he got to the sanctuary Gashuehe was nearly hairless, occasionally self-abusive (beating his own head or biting his arms, hands, or feet in frustration), but otherwise physically relatively healthy.  By which I mean that he wasn’t emaciated or terribly sick – but this was clearly not a healthy chimp.

IMG_7405Such a dork.

To the best of our knowledge, Gashuehe lived alone at the auto yard without any other chimpanzees.  Most likely, as is often the case with captive primates, Gashuehe was allowed to run loose and interact freely with people until he was six or seven (or even eight or nine years old).  But Gashuehe was a large, strong chimp, and nobody is willing to take the risk of an animal with the strength of a linebacker getting angry at them in free contact, so he was caged at some point.

Gashuehe proved himself to be a lovely chimp, despite his mental handicaps.  He integrated well into a small group of two adult females and a juvenile male, and happily accepted a young male into the group when he arrived.  He was easy to work with, rarely caused problems (beyond the standard “I’m a male chimp and sometimes that is the equivalent of being a giant asshole”), and even tried to play with the younger boys in his group.  He wasn’t so great at playing with the boys: he would easily become too rough or the play would get out of hand, and one of the kids would end up screaming.  In return, Gashuehe would scream and run away, contrite about his mistake.  He never did totally get over that tendency, but he always kept trying to play.

IMG_3496Not Gashuehe, but Jane looks hilarious here so I had to include it again

In 2012 it came time for all the chimps in Gashuehe’s small group to be integrated into the two larger groups at the sanctuary.  Gashuehe and the two younger males (Romeo and Roy) were slated to be integrated to the smaller existing group, and the two females to the larger existing group.  (They hadn’t been integrated previously as Roy was quite young and small, and introducing young chimps to adult males can be tricky.  This speaks to Gashuehe’s kindness, really.)  So Gashue, Romeo, and Roy moved over to the night house of the smaller group so they could start to get acquainted.

Gashuehe and the boys lived in a small enclosure adjacent to the main enclosure, so I saw a lot of them.  We would sit in the sun together, Gashuehe and I, watching the other chimps and listening to their unnecessary protests at our presence.  His eyes were dark and beautiful, and since his hair was always a little on the thin side I could watch the sweat beading up on his skin as we roasted together under the equatorial sun.  His hands were enormous – at least a foot long, and heavily calloused along the knuckles.  He would quietly stick a hand out of the raceway at the keepers, his wrist relaxed, palm outstretched, and they would groom him, pretending to pick over the skin and hair for nits and ticks that were never there.  If they let him, he would groom them back, but often became distracted by the wonderful human inventions of shoelaces or socks.  Once, I took my shoes off and showed him my toes from a safe distance, and he was mesmerized.  I will always remember him lying there in the sun, quiet and peaceful, sweating through a nap, one arm extended with the fingers gently curled up.

IMG_7351Akela is the queen

We talked a lot about how we should integrate the three of them, and long story short we decided to start with Akela, one of the cleverest and gentlest females.  Akela was a class act during the integration.  Gashuehe was scared and wary – prior to living in the small group he had briefly been integrated with some adult females who despised him – so he stayed away from Akela as much as possible.  For her part, Akela gently put just a tiny bit of pressure on him, a step at a time, slowly creeping closer and closer until the two of them were practically sitting next to one another.  A few days later the two of them were interacting amicably, and for each subsequent introduction Gashuehe was less scared and more, for lack of a better descriptor, normal.

Introducing an adult male chimpanzee to other adult male chimpanzees is not the easiest thing to accomplish.  It’s far from impossible (which is what many institutions believe), but you have to have a lot of patience and the right combination of personalities around.  After watching Gashuehe fumble his way through the integrations with the adult females I was definitely worried about how he would interact with adult males.

But I needn’t have worried about Gashuehe’s instinct when it came to male chimpanzees.  He loved them.  The first male Gashuehe met instantly turned him into a subordinate male chimpanzee who knew exactly what to do – he pant-grunted, hand-presented, and crouched, and in return Cumbo placated him, with an only slightly confused pat on the back.  We moved quickly through the one-on-one integrations with the other males in the group (just 5 of them), and I saw Gashuehe come out of his shell more and more with each integration.  Only one integration worried me at first, with the third-ranking male Kisa behaving kindly when he met Gashuehe in protected-contact (they could touch through the bars but could not reach a whole hand through), then immediately jumping on and pounding Gashuehe when the two came into full contact.  Gashuehe fought back, and when Kisa realized he was well-matched for weight and strength he changed his tune, screaming, kissing, and hugging Gashuehe fiercely.  Kisa never started anything with Gashuehe again that I saw, and Gashuehe readily forgave Kisa, since really the only chimp Gashuehe had eyes for was William (an up-and-comer from rank number 4 who looked eerily similar to his namesake, Prince William).  The caregivers worked on the integrations for weeks, and I resumed my behavioral observations.

IMG_4190I mean, he bears at least a passing resemblance…

On October 25th, Gashuehe went out in the big enclosure with the whole group for the first time.  It was, without a doubt, one of the happiest moments of my time working with chimps.  Here was this chimp, so thoroughly broken by what people had done to him, living in a social group once more.  And he wasn’t even having that tough of a time of it. Sure, one of the bitchy smaller females was giving him a hard time over nothing, but the other males seemed to enjoy his presence and didn’t even mind his occasional overly enthusiastic displays of affection.  Poor Romeo was having a much harder time – less personable and more anxious than the smaller, cuter Roy, he couldn’t find a niche with either the adult males or adult females.  The adult males had Gashuehe, and the adult females were busy gushing over Roy.  His only potential ally, Jane, played too roughly for Romeo and scared him.  (So Jane played by herself, since Roy, who she really wanted to play with was busy being carried around by the other females.)

IMG_5509Jane ripping out some piping because she just had to get the bottom of this mystery

On October 31st I ran away from the escaping chimps from the larger group, and Gashuehe did not return to the night house with the other chimps in his group.  Roy and the original fourteen all walked right in, but Gashuehe and Romeo remained in the forest.  Romeo had taken a lot of comfort in Gashuehe’s presence after the integrations, and the enclosure was secure, so the caregivers did not enter the enclosure to try to convince them to come to the night house.

On November 1st I worked in the lab.  Late at night I got an email blind copied to me about the post-mortem on Gashuehe’s body.  I think I read the entire document through before I realized what I was actually reading.

At some time in the afternoon of the 31st Gashuehe was killed by the other chimps in his group.  His body was retrieved on the night of November 1st when, after Gashuehe did not return to the night house for a second night in a row, the caregivers locked the rest of the chimps inside the night house and went to look for Gashuehe.  They found him face down, nearly buried in the mud in a swale by the river.

I don’t know who killed Gashuehe, though I have my suspicions.  Most realistically everyone had a hand in it, because chimps are far too happy to jump on an aggressive bandwagon.  He had mud in his lungs, broken bones, and massive blunt force trauma throughout his body.  Chimps are, it turns out, very good at using their momentum and mass against their competitors in a fight.  If they can get an opponent down on the ground that individual stands almost no chance, as the others will use their mass and momentum to pummel the victim into the ground, charging past him and jumping on him.  (And then wild chimps will revisit the location of the attack for several days afterward, investigating the body and the scene and, if the body is gone, carefully searching the underbrush… it is both as fascinating and as creepy as it sounds.)

This is one of the nightmares of the caregivers at chimp sanctuaries.  That somehow the chimps do not get along in such a catastrophic way.  But it is also the risk they take every day.  It is a choice better than the one these chimps had before, better than Gashuehe living along in a cage in an auto yard, better than him living in a social group that didn’t meet his needs, better than living within view of chimps who got to lead a full life.  In the months preceding his death Gashuehe was given something that all chimps deserve – a chance at a full life.

On November 2nd I helped the caregivers dig a hole that was rather deeper than you would think necessary.  We buried Gashuehe bush style, with thorny whistling acacia branches embedded in the top two feet of the soil and piled over the site to deter scavengers.  We marked the grave as the caregivers had done all the chimps who died before Gashuehe, with a single brick and a memory.


seasoned professional

I’m not sure if there’s anything more first-world-problem than this: after a lovely schooling outing on Saturday at a new venue, my phone died in the heat and proved to be irresurrectable (like the word I made up there?) so the only evidence I have of the schooling outing ever happening are my OWN MEMORIES.

deadphoneIt is pretty upsetting though.

But such is life when you are technology cursed.  My phone will be replaced under warranty and I will never see the videos again, and my juju for phone killing will live on.

Schooling was a nice outing though, even if it was a bajillion degrees.  We went to Eventful Acres, which is up in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas.  Murray stepped off the trailer with a little trepidation, but quickly settled in after I let him munch on some delicious irrigated grass.  He even tacked up with minimal complaint, stood at the trailer while I dicked around with my hair net, and stood to be girthed like a professional.  That was when I first suspected something was wrong.

IMG_3333Murray was behaving like an adult.

We walked out and schooled a portion of the course that was buried in the woods, and despite taking the uneven footing and smattering of pine cones as an opportunity to spook, he didn’t try to dump me and run.  While we waited for other people to school the elements, Murray calmly ate grass and then perked up when I pointed him to the jumps.  He jumped things and landed happily and cantered on or turned to eat grass as I directed.

He was…. scarily grown up.

Multiple people commented on Murray being the Steady Eddy of the group, and I was pretty impressed with him myself.  While the greenies in our group were tucking their heads between their knees or wiggling around and unable to focus or broncing for the first time in living memory, Murray was like “… can we eat some more of those clovers please?”

It was weird.

We schooled much of the BN course and a little of the Novice course, including a nice big turkey feeder and a really steep creek-to-log-out that utterly terrified me.  I was like “are you serious that you are supposed to be galloping along then cross this path and go down this creek at a walk then trot out and jump this log ARE YOU FOR REAL?!?!”  In truth, I felt that a few of the jumps were a little bit… odd for the terrain/level, but I understand that you have to use your terrain as you can!

Murray was jumping fantastically.  I used my newly re-found skills of not driving into the saddle the entire time and stayed up in a teeny half seat and only sat (but lightly) a few strides prior to the fence.  I could really feel this working as I pushed Murray toward the fence and prevented him from just shrinking his stride up beneath me*.  And repeatedly, in response, Murray jumped the fence from a good spot, not his preferred spot deep to the base of the fence.  We jumped in stride and it felt awesome!

* Interestingly there was a pony in our group who really exemplified Chris Scarlett’s statement that a shorter stride is faster/a longer stride is slower.  I could quite literally watch and hear her squeezing those extra strides in.  It was very interesting.


We had one truly disasterous set of refusals at a up bank to four stride to log with a downhill landing.  Murray was first made quite uncomfortable by the turn to the up bank, as we had to pass by a small dam and a big willow tree with a scary shadow, and then he was busy staring at a tall hedge of Italian Cypress on our right.  Once we got up the bank, after a couple of tries, Murray was like “yeah, no” to the big log.  So I listened to him.  He was so adult and reasonable for the entire schooling up until that moment, and I wasn’t riding particularly well.  So I figured it was a good idea to trust the fact that Murray wasn’t willing to go out on the limb for me, and not jump that log.  If I’d been in better riding shape and had a stronger trust bank, perhaps I would have been willing to push the issue.  But after hardly jumping in two months and riding only a little bit more than that in the time, I was happy to take whatever Murray would give me.


We await to see if my phone will be able to give me the videos back if it ever connects to wiffy.  My guess is no.  So Murray’s most adultest** expedition will just have to live on in our memories!

**Not like that, get your mind out of the gutter.

adaptive riding

I had a stellar jump lesson Tuesday, my first jump lesson in close to two months and Murray’s first serious jump school in a month!  I made the tactical decision to do a quick jump school on Monday to get Murray accustomed to the idea of jumping again and let him get acclimated to the fences in the arena, per his insane spookiness lately.  This was the right choice: it took Murray and I a lot of time to get back in sync with jumping and also to remember that not all jumps are pony eating monsters and that even if they are pony eating monsters the best way to avoid them is to jump REALLY HIGH over them.  One of my kid friends, you know just those normal barn rat better than everyone riders, picked up poles for me and reminded me to do the things I am supposed to when jumping like maintain a rhythm and keep my leg on.

The lesson started out very average.  Murray was torn between being happy that we were jumping and really upset that everything in the arena had changed in the last month.  He was squirrely but forward, and was trotting pretty adorably.

july jump 01such engage. much adorbs.

Unfortunately, once we started cantering fences Murray lost his understanding of what leg means and started to get a little lurchy.  When I put my leg on to help him maintain a steady rhythm and reach for the fences it had the absolute opposite effect, and Murray would drop his back and jam another tiny, hideous stride in before the fence.  After six fences in a row of this I pulled Murray out of the line we were in as I desperately needed a reboot.  This was not working.

While I was lamaz breathing to keep my ish together B told me to change my strategy.  Instead of sitting on Murray and driving him to the fences with my seat, she had me go back to the not-quite-half-seat of yesteryear and half halt and rebalance Murray with my thighs while keeping my seat really light.  (I had moved away from this to avoid jumping ahead and be able to use my seat more effectively.  I just do what I’m told.)

july jump 04

And it worked.  DUH.

I am a huge proponent of doing what I’m told by my trainer.  I like to think that I fight back with her the least of all the adults, and sometimes that’s certainly true.  But I can also be a bit of a pain in the ass sometimes.  Fortunately, this was not one of those times, and trainer managed to drag my back from the brink of an absolute meltdown with this strategy.

Oh trainer. How I love you.

The rest of our lesson went really well, especially for a rusty Murray and Nicole.  We jumped through the two stride, getting three every time but one (no groundlines maybe? this line caused us a LOT of trouble), jumped some new(ish) scary filler, and got through the one stride line with ones many times, including with my helmet cover falling off.

july jump 02assistant trainer turned this broken chevron into an adorable watermelon slice!

The big lesson from this lesson was to be adaptable.  If I had been schooling on my own and Murray pulled this there is no way I would have figured out to change my strategy, and I’m sure I would have kept  jamming my bony little ass into his spine and he would have kept jamming four more inches of stride in before the fences.  I am just not that good of a rider yet.  But it’s something I should remember — Murray is teaching me all these different strategies to ride him well, and I need to remember to use them.  But it’s hard when you’re out of practice.  (Let me reiterate: I love my trainer.)

The funniest part of our lesson was when we did just one more course.  My kid friend videographer had put my helmet cover on top of the pole over the barrels and as I came towards it I yelled “Oh you may have doomed us!!!!”  Embarrassingly, Murray did not give two shits about the helmet cover.  I, however, stared it down so hard that I buried Murray to the fence.

july jump 3

So I guess it’s a good thing that Murray is now more educated than me… that means I did my job, right?

wordless-adjacent wednesday

I had intended to write this whole post today about either a) the weird things that I do to help me be a more balanced rider or b) my fantastic jump lesson.  But then I got kinda drunk at my friend’s house on a single Lagunitas Imperial Stout and… now I can’t write things.  So please enjoy this graphic of Murray’s feelings regarding my helmet cover.

Does anyone have a good solution to a helmet cover that comes off all the time?  Asking for a friend.

july 10 questions

1. Do you actually always pick the horse’s feet? Always? Really?

No.  That is the chore that I habitually forget.  Sometimes I realize I forgot when I’m walking out to the arena, or when I’m riding, or when I get back to the barn and I’m like “Oh… I did not… do that.”  I am lucky that I have a horse who does not go to pieces over a little schmutz in his feet.  I am better with other peoples’ horses.


2. What is the biggest obstacle/reason preventing you from becoming a professional or competing full time with ease?

Skill.  Horses.  Money.  Time.  But let’s say that I can solve the the first two with the last two.  I would still struggle to compete full time with ease because I’m not sure I could do so in good conscience.  If I had enough money to be showing as much as I wanted and improving my skills the way I wanted, I would have a metric butt ton of money.  And that money could be put to much better uses than improving my personal hobby that costs an inordinate amount of money.

That money could save a ton of forest and chimpanzees.  It could pay a lot of ranger salaries, help a lot of kids go to school, and let me do a lot of research that I am not otherwise able to do.  And doing that work is something I’m very passionate about, and being able to make valuable change in the face of conservation would be incredible. So, it’s more than just money and time and skill and horses, really.  I don’t think I could lead a fulfilling life just riding and competing.

3. Do you think it will ever not be about the money?

Certainly not.  But when money makes the playing field equal, skill will certainly show through.


4. Was there ever a horse that you loved and really wanted to have a connection with, but it just never panned out?

I don’t think so.

5. What is one weakness in your riding that even your trainer doesn’t pick up on, only you?

Hm, good question.  For the most part, I feel like my trainer picks up on my weaknesses and flaws pretty well.  She knows that I want to keep my reins too long, that I have uneven pressure in my seat bones and stirrups, and when I’m inclined to lean forward or pitch myself oddly in the saddle.  So there’s nothing that I’m better at identifying in myself than my trainer is at this point.

6. What is the biggest doubt/insecurity you ask or tell yourself in your head?

That my horse is mentally incapable of performing the tasks to which I aspire.

7. There is a barn fire. You are the first person to discover it and see that the roof is collapsing in slowly, and you can tell it’s going to come down any time. Do you call people first or head straight in to save the horses?

There’s no way that I can save all the horses on my own, and I will need to get emergency services here anyway, so I go inside and call 911 first.  Even if there is only a land line, that is the most rational choice.  Then I call the barn manager and tell her to call everyone else.  Then I go save my horse, and others.  The glory of cell phones makes this choice much less horrifying.


8. What is one event in your riding career/horse/anything that you’re still not over, even though you might tell others you are?

I’m not sure.  I don’t think I’ve had enough riding experience to be hung up on anything just yet.

9. If you could tell off one person you just don’t like, what would you say?

That she needs to take a step back and look deeply within herself and acknowledge her own flaws and stop turning things around on other people as if they are the cause of all her problems.

10. Have you ever seen questionable riding or training practices, but let it go/ignored it? How do you feel about it in hindsight?

This is interesting.  I have never seen something that I would qualify as abuse without stepping in to talk to the person/rider/trainer in question.  I usually try to frame this as a question of their methods and ask them to explain so I can understand, and then challenge their opinions to see if I cannot convince them of a gentler way.  However, this has happened probably… three times ever?  More often I see something questionable that is not abuse,  but is not the way I would do things and, in my opinion, will not lead the rider to their desired destination.  In that case, I keep quiet — it is every rider’s prerogative to make their own choices and even mistakes, or even to teach me how my own assumptions were incorrect!


i want to see you be brave

Among the many things that Murray is good at — and there are many! Being adorable, leveraging his adorableness to get what he wants, treating “his” herd which he is now the boss of with kindness and respect, pretending that he’s too cool for school, hating new shavings, etc. — being brave is not one of them.  And this has never been more apparent to me than now: Murray is in sporadic work and seems to be afraid of just about everything right now.  Newly painted fences?  Terrifying.  Spooky corner of the arena?  Horrifying.  A few items of jump paraphernalia in the middle of the arena?  THE WORST.  Jump standards he’s seen approximately 9461257 times?  Barely acceptable.

scared of that thing

Our first ride back together last week was not a triumphant reunion.  Murray spent his time flailing left and right and proving himself to be flexible through the ribcage in ways he usually spends a lot of time convincing me that he is not.  I mean seriously, have you ever felt a horse bend his body left while his neck is flexed right, all while also running right?  It’s super magical.  During our warm up I basically reminded Murray that his only job was to keep his head down, listen to me, flex when I told him to, and listen to me.  Twenty minutes of power trotting around every single possible spooky item in the arena Murray could actually work.

octdressage2For my next few rides I brought a bunch of extra lifesavers into the arena with me and made a point of walking Murray up to every scary object and playing our old game “touch” with them.  It’s a super game: I say “touch!” and Murray walks up to something scary and blows the Curious Ungulate blow, and finally after he touches it he gets candy.  Delicious, delicious candy.

These two solutions are basically on opposite ends of the spectrum — address the object straight on and associate it with something positive, or work and ignore the things.  There’s some middle ground too, where I just ignore that he’s scared of anything and keep working on something else.  I use all of these at different times.  But at the moment it’s worth it for me to avoid the fight with Murray and just take the time and bribe him.  It changes his association with scary objects*, and puts him in a better mood for the ride overall.

* Though it may very well create other distraction problems where Murray wants to go towards those things to retrieve the sweet, sugary reward there… but if that happens I will, frankly, consider it a huge success.

Repeated exposure to scary things with positive or (at least) non-terrifying experiences always makes Murray calmer and quieter.  Now that we are backin the riding swing, I hope I’ll be seeing a braver Murray in the next few weeks.  But what I really want to know is what you do to help your horse be brave.  Because I need more tricks in my magic bag!  Murray ain’t gonna know what hit him.


Interestingly, Murray is always way braver when he’s been jumping.  And he’s much less afraid of objects he’s jumped over.  Which proves that his only viable career is eventing, since otherwise his list of things he isn’t afraid of would quickly dwindle to…. basically just our barn manager.

back seat riding

Riding is a funny sport.  We spend a lot of time watching ourselves and other people ride and assessing the things the rider could have done differently, and it starts to sound like a lot of catty, bitchy, railbirding really fast.

power pastelsIn normal social circles talking about the things that people are/are not doing or should/should not be doing while not directly addressing them is not exactly considered friendly behavior.  But I do it to my friends all the time*, and I know they do it to me, and I am totally, totally okay with it.

* Dear friends reading this: Sorry if this is breaking news to you. I hope you don’t dump me.  Come talk to me if you’re legitimately concerned.

Watching people ride and critiquing their rides is a huge learning opportunity for me.  And my commentary is not in any way saying that I would have ridden better, smarter, or differently than a rider in that situation.  I use it as a chance to discuss the possible solutions to problems that I can identify, and to discuss the problems we can actually see.  Additionally, it gives you an opportunity to see if you can correctly identify the problems – when you see someone get an ugly spot to a jump, was the problem in the two strides before the jump or was it the turn they biffed twelve strides out?  We all know that there is more than one way to ride a course or train a horse, and there’s typically more than one solution to a problem, so why not discuss those possible solutions and think about how we could enact them as riders?

There is a time and a place.  While someone is laying on the ground wheezing and gasping for air after being squashed by her panicking horse in a wash rack while he frantically breaks his halter, the cross ties, and then goes running off naked and with only one standing wrap on is not the time to say “That will teach her not to do that again.” **  That still makes you an asshole.  Once everything has calmed down, all horses and humans are deemed intact and unbroken, and the tears have faded though, that is a great time to suggest that discipline in the cross ties needs to be approached carefully due to the feelings of claustrophobia horses can experience while tied.

dressage** No, of course this has never actually happened to me. Don’t know what you’re talking about.

For the most part, it’s easy for me to accept this from both friends and strangers.  Please, use me as a learning tool!  Without any vanity, if I can provide a valuable example for anyone to learn from, I am happy to do it.  Even when I think I’ve had a good ride, I’d love to know what I could do to make it a great ride.  And it doesn’t diminish my happiness to hear someone say “If you had put your leg on a little earlier to the watermelon slice then you might have had a better turn to the next fence,” because then I can try to perfect that later.  It also doesn’t diminish my happiness to know that people are saying those things where I can’t hear them.

stop2Why did you let your horse stop and then lose your temper, Nicole?

It can be hard to swallow when you’re repeatedly fucking up your ride, knowing that the people looking on are making judgment calls about your skills and your horse’s skills.  Especially when you know that they don’t know where you’re coming from – the journey you have made with this horse, the place you came from as a rider, the shape of your relationship together.  But the important thing to remember is: the people who know you will understand, and the people who don’t know you don’t fucking matter.  What do I care if some stranger sees my horse losing his shit over canter transitions and thinks that I’ve done a terrible job of teaching him how to use his back properly?  I willingly pay to submit myself to that kind of judgment multiple times per year!

IMG_8849This does, of course, only count for legitimate critique.  There are plenty of people, younger people I suspect (based on my experiences with age), who enjoy saying things that are inaccurate at best and outright lies at worst.  These charming creatures are usually pretty easily identified, though.  And, as I am sure many of us have found, as they progress through life their behavior is rewarded less and less, because the older we get the less valuable that kind of pseudo-information is to us.

The thing about critique, which I think many people do not understand, is that it does not comment upon you as a person or a rider.  It addresses your performance and (ideally) does so in a way that helps you identify the things you need to change in order to improve a specific skill set.  Just because I can’t figure out how to stop jumping ahead when I want a long spot doesn’t make me a bad person, or even say that I am a bad rider, it just means that I have room to improve in this specific area.

yves7Murray remains entirely uninterested in critique, from anyone, frankly

I relish any opportunity to learn.  While I might not want to hear about my riding flaws all the time, I know that I’ll hear about them eventually, and it will improve me in the long run.  This mentality also means that I don’t feel at all guilty when I’m critiquing someone’s ride – whether they are a friend and I know I will discuss it with them afterwards or not.  If they want to improve as a rider, critique will be valuable to them too.  And if they don’t, well, that sounds like a personal problem.

a few things I’ve learned…

… from quitting riding for 4-6 weeks at a time twice in the last five months OR

Quickly become fat, unfit, and unmotivated, in just one easy step!

Eat these to reward yourself for working on your thesis…

I have been making many joyous adult decisions lately, some related to making up for current funemployment, some related to avoiding future funemployment, some related to just finishing up my thesis — which is finally, actually, really happening.  Unfortunately, this means that a lot of days I forgo riding because even though I technically have time to ride and get my work done, I know that if I ride first my work will not get done so… I don’t ride.  And now I will share with you some of the wonderful things I have learned in this time.

There are extra hours in the day
When I was working on my thesis back in March there were suddenly all of these extra hours in my day… like, these weird, daylight hours when I was in my house and working and the sun hadn’t gone down yet and there was all this time… I gained like three hours a day.  It’s much more effective than daylight savings, let me tell you.

I became so unfit I legitimately needed a break between two jump courses
So when you go from riding six+ days a week and assorted barn chores + mucking/feeding on occasion to sitting on the couch and taptaptapping away at your laptop instead you will go from being fit (at least riding fit) to feeling like fat bastard.  It is really embarrassing when you can’t even get around the second half of your course when told to because you need a walk and huff and puff break.

Your event horse might get a hunter bod
Murray looooooooooooooooooves his vacation time.  He became a professional napper during my March hiatus, and again when I was in Australia, and the last two weeks, and basically… all the time now.  Even after I ride he eats about half a bucket, cruises out to his paddock, paws around for a moment in the fluff, and knocks right out.  It’s amazing and adorable, and his topline kinda slowly melted away, gravity pulled it toward his belly, and my lithe, mean, fit, eventing machine is looking kinda portly in the belly region.  It’s okay.  I think it’s cute.

profile2I can haz belly now

Wanting to work hard is… hard
This is especially hard for me to admit, since I’m usually really goal oriented and pushing forward to progress — at least in some area of my riding and Murray’s training.  But when you ride one day a week (or less) and you’re struggling just to find time to schedule lessons, wanting to work hard or go out of your way to make lessons is really hard.  I never really understood when people were just… uninterested in progressing, but I think I get it now.  Part of it is that it’s challenging to try to eke out your little dribs and drabs of progress when there are four or fourteen days between your rides.  And if I don’t feel like working on something with my horse, then why not work on my thesis and let Murray take the day off?

But things are looking up.  The end is drawing near — I flat out refused to pay tuition in the Fall so I will either be a Doctor or a seventh-year-grad-school-drop-out come October.  And either way, I WILL HAVE TIME.  AND A SCHEDULE.  Hopefully a schedule that is not a piece of absolute shit.

Murray does not know this, but hard work is coming…


no one right way

When we started Murray’s dressage training there was plenty of good to work with: rhythmic gaits, a good cadence, and the good type of sensitivity.  But he was also terribly spooky, suspicious, stiff-backed and –necked, and uncomfortable with the idea of using his body in a different way.  And his gaits, while very steady, were short and stiff.

IMG_1985All up on that inside rein…

Both my regular trainer and my dressage trainer, Tina Steward, wanted me to get Murray using his whole body to move, instead of just stabbing his legs around, and to unlock his neck, back, and pelvis.  Tina’s main method of doing this is by over-flexing a horse to the inside with a strong, steady inside rein.  A steady inside rein can act almost like a side rein – when the horse finally gives through the neck the contact immediately softens.  My very first lesson with Tina focused on exactly this: encouraging Murray to lower his head and thereby lift the base of his neck, and then later simultaneously do this while changing bend on a serpentine.  It was incredibly challenged for my four year old – he was four then!!! – and gave me an effective tool for encouraging Murray to use his neck and come through his back.  So for a long time I rode Murray off of pretty much just that inside rein – the outside rein was there and helped with steering, but all of my connection was with the inside rein.

febdressage09Just starting to think about the outside rein…

I knew, and know, that this wasn’t the “right way”.  You don’t ride dressage completely off of the inside rein, and the point beyond which a horse can go around with his head essentially as low as he can get it is around intro level.  But it was an incredibly useful tool to get Murray thinking about using his body the right way.  It got him there without a fight, when more conventional methods of encouraging a horse to lift through his back and come into the bridle would have (and did, on the few occasions we employed them) resulted in a bucking fit, or him only traveling in side pass for an entire ride, or a curious inability to turn right.  But by reminding him that all I wanted was for him to stretch down and through his back on that inside rein Murray relaxed and fundamentally changed the way he moved and used his body.


My trainer, a couple of clinicians, and my MIL all commented that it’s time to get Murray working like a regular dressage horse and transition him over to the outside rein.  And now that I’m thoroughly entrenched in that process, and I know how to use my body correctly to get Murray to his his body correctly, I can see that this really is a more effective way to ride.  Once Murray is warmed up and on board, the connection is better, his bend is truer, and it’s easier for me to communicate what I want with really little movements.  But Murray is not always warmed up and on board.  And when he is not, the dramatics are … large and in charge.

I can see why it would be super tempting for someone to move on to shifting the connection to the outside rein immediately.  Now that I can get it a bit I’m like “WTF IS THIS MAGIC”.  When I talk to trainers they’re very happy to hear that Murray is really rideable(ish) off the outside rein, and that I’ve come to drink the kool-aid of the Real Dressage Connection.

IMG_7831can still lift his back even when tense!

But there’s this part of me that’s always like “but he needed it.  He really needed it!”  And he did need it.  Obviously I can’t know for sure what it would have been like if I’d gone straight to the outside rein with him – maybe it would have been fine (instinct says no).  But now Murray has a legitimate understanding of using his topline from his tail through his poll, and not just arching his neck and hollowing his back.  He doesn’t think of dressage as a place where he gets trapped or into fights, so his inclination isn’t to tense and brace.


That inside rein was a tool – or a crutch, if you want to think of it that way – and as unconventional as it was, it was effective.  Maybe not everyone needs it like Murray does, and maybe they don’t need it for as long as he did, and maybe it’s not the right tool for other horses.  It wasn’t directly on the path to the “right way” of riding dressage, but we are still working our way there.  Which is at least a part of the point of this whole ramble – there is no one right way to do this.