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.

GOLD!!!!

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.

Anyway.

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.

operationalize

Shortly after January’s Spiral of Nag ride, I did what any confused amateur would do: I scheduled a lesson with my trainer, and complained to my friends.

This is me, asking myself about watermark.i was really looking for the vultures singing “that’s what friends are¬†fooooor” but this one will do just fine

To recap: I discovered that my horse does not reliably trot forward when I cue him to do so. Depending on the day and where we’re at in the ride — warming up, going good, at the end of the ride, feeling super lazy — I get correct responses between, probably, 30% and 85% of the time. But other horses I ride can trot on cue.¬† Like, all of them. All of the time.

So the goal of my lesson was to help me become super aware and super accountable for the trot transitions. I told B to be extra critical of what I was doing with my body so that I could give the same cue every time and help Murray really understand the antecedent-behavior-consequence chain that I wanted.

Unfortunately, the lesson was a little doomed from the start. Murray had slipped out of his blanket at some point overnight, and the weather was unexpectedly frigid.¬† Not unexpected for the season, but shocking given the 70* days and near-50* nights we’d been experiencing.¬† So Murray was cold, tense, and cranky when I got to him.

not happy, nicole!

Murray and I demonstrated our weaknesses¬†very quickly. B called me out immediately for throwing my body around when Murray didn’t step into the trot immediately.¬† It turns out that I have zero patience.¬† If Murray didn’t show some upswing in power within a step of me squeezing him with my legs, I would throw away the contact, pitch my body forward, and lift my seat.

B coached me through increasing the ask (more leg pressure) without flailing — giving a stronger squeeze or even a bit of a boot — while sitting tall, keeping my hands steady, and sitting in the saddle.¬† Which is… embarrassingly hard for me.

Murray was not a fan of this. He was happy to trot off on his own schedule, but doing so when I asked was not really working for him.

We made good progress in the lesson, but it got a lot uglier before that.  B kept encouraging me to stay tall, and quietly urge Murray to go forward, without letting him use balking or ducking behind the contact or fishtailing around to evade the work. I had lots of homework from the lesson.

evasions: we have them

On the friend front, Kate was an awesome, sympathetic, and encouraging ear. Sure, my horse doesn’t have a reliable walk-trot transition, which is something that much greener and much younger horses have long mastered, but now that I’d identified the problem, wasn’t this the perfect time to work on it?

Kate suggested that I operationalize what I wanted Murray to do.  What exactly is the cue? What exactly is the behavior I am looking for in response? Do I want to squeeze Murray for ten seconds and have him trot off at some point in the next ten steps?  Or do I want to brush my calves against his side and have him trot off immediately?

She suggested that for his current level of training (or like, whatever it is we’ll call it that I’ve been doing with Murray for the last four years) I make my cue a squeeze of 1-3 seconds and expect a response within 3 steps.¬† It’s not too extreme, but it is reasonable for the level of work that we’re trying to do this year.

Operationalizing the behavior was amazingly helpful. It gave me a quantifiable target for what I wanted to get out of Murray, and something I can¬†count to see how close we are to getting there.¬† It’s impossible not to struggle with observational bias when the improvement or behavior I’m looking for is subjective — what is “better” anyway?¬† But when I can count mississippis and steps, then I can tell exactly how much progress we’ve made and how far we need to go.

Murray, for his part, remains the extra creature he’s wont to be.