trash human: activate

I had a spectacularly bad ride a few Wednesdays ago. I really set myself up for failure by planning a lesson the day I got back from five days out of town (with an extra long and stressful drive the night before because of a snowstorm blowing through), less than 24 hours after Speedy had a dental and his annual vaccines.

I know Speedy gets punky and sore after vaccines, and I am aware that five days off isn’t a great setup for a good lesson, and I could tell in the moment that it wasn’t going well. Yet when Speedy told me “I can’t” over and over in the lesson, I bullied him rather than listen to him. Which is a direct route to feeling like peak trash.

Something alarming happened in the pasture during lunch, so Speedy brought a snack with him to observe the happenings.

I don’t have a lot of straight up Bad Rides these days. Even if we have a hard ride or aren’t on the same page or spend a long time struggling with an exercise, we almost always find some good in it and end on an improved note. This lesson ended with sobbing and lunging on a decidedly not improved note.

Among the things I adore about Speedy is that no matter how rough our ride is, he is always cuddly and sociable in his stall, and doesn’t seem to take it personally. But this go around…. he wasn’t quite as forgiving. The day after my Trash Human performance, Speedy was so sore and miserable that I cancelled my lesson and gave him 250mg of bute. The next day he was fine, but I just turned him out and played liberty games with him in the arena instead of pushing it.

The new barn also has cows, which Speedy love. Until one of them looks like it’s trying to die in the fence. He does not love that.

(Which, side quest, I’ve never personally managed a horse who had such a serious reaction to vaccines before! When I got to the barn Speedy looked dull, and was crankily pawing at his alfalfa and then rapidly snatching bites of whatever he pawed up. At first I thought he might be colicking, because this horse not eating alfalfa is a major red flag. But I quickly realized he was uncomfortable lowering his head all the way to the ground to eat, so put his hay up in a net and gave him bute at the advice of my barn manager, and a mashy-grainy water bucket to ensure good hydration. But I was pretty worried there for a second.)

Finally on Saturday, eight days since any kind of consistent or quality work with one shit ride speckled in the middle, we got back to it. My goal for the ride was just to keep it mellow but see if I could get him moving over his back and stretching into the connection a bit. I swung up on Speedy, gave him his traditional standing-at-the-mounting-block treat and he promptly went full pony on me, taking charge of the situation by trotting away from the mounting block. He was positively buzzing during the ride, bouncing off a tiny pony from the other lesson program, pushing his neck back against me, and only very halfheartedly listening to my efforts to chill or woah.

I built a boot organizer for the barn to go under this window so we could declutter our tack room! I love it, such a nice way to use a weird space and keep my boots and helmet out of my trunk.

For my next few rides, Speedy was distinctly not buying what I was selling. He’s not automatically the most “submissive” guy anyway, but more often than not he’s willing to try for me. But he fully reverted back to “I go with my head in the air, the steering is marginal, and I have exactly two speeds: fast and faster.” It got better through the week during my lessons with TrJ, but even now — two weeks later — I’ve still not clawed my way back into Speedy’s good graces entirely. It’s like we erased months of progress and are back where we were well before Christmas, which is such an insane bummer because after Christmas we had some of our most amazing flat and jump lessons ever.

It’s possibly more than just my trash human riding a few weeks ago. TrJ’s whole program moved facilities at the beginning of February and we’re right in the thick of winter training right now. And, well, he’s a horse. TrJ has been saying that an awful lot lately, to all of us. “He’s a horse, he’s gonna do horse things.”

Teefies v. teefies with Hazel’s new shark toy.

But after basically a straight year of what felt like nothing but a magnificent rocketship to the sky of progress, this setback smarts.

With a bit of distance from the event, it’s fine. It’s…. fine. It’sfineit’sfineit’sFINE. I would obviously rather not have massive setbacks with my horse or be an asshole to him. But I’m a human and I’m going to make stupid mistakes, and I’d rather make these discoveries early and at home, when I have plenty of time, space, and resources to come back from them.

So… onward and hopefully upward from here. I know a few more things now about how not to be a trash human to my horse and how much I need to baby him during vaccine week. Plus, building trust is a process and rebuilding is part of that process too.

Also I’m teaching Speedy to stationary target at this duct-tape cross on the wall and his cue is “let us pray”. I kill myself, really.

(Funny enough, it looks like the last time I was an awful human being to my horse [big caveat there since I’m an awful human being to other humans all the time] was right after he was vaccinated last Fall. A pattern. Hmm.)

50 weird things

The only goal I’ve set (so far) for this year is to introduce Speedy to something weird and new each week. I’m giving myself a couple of bye weeks to account for vacation or illness or life or whatever. But the beauty of this game is that even if Speedy is out of work for some reason, we can still play around with weird things in the down time.

Why Weird Things? Speedy is really quite good with novel objects and generally not a spooky guy. Every once in a while we come across something in a new context or something uniquely weird that catches us off guard. And since he’s so generally well-behaved and calm, neither of us has a lot of tools in our belt for handling those situations. So we’re going to practice playing with weird things at home so that when we find weird things out in the wild we have a better handle on how to get over, past, or through them.

we already love some weird things

Speedy also has his own way of handling Things. Sometimes this manifests itself in novel, adorable ways of approaching problems. I’ll film him lining himself up at the mounting block sometime. It’s ridiculously cute, and he’s pretty enthusiastic about it. But Speedy is also very, very convinced his way is The Way of Mandalor to handle Things. Sometimes this manifests itself in him very, very carefully avoiding doing what I’m trying to ask because it is Not The Way. And that is…. frustrating.

Also, Speedy can be kinda weirdly uncreative (probably linked to his firm belief that his way is The Way). So I’m hoping that by tackling a bunch of novel things, we will unlock some more creativity and Speedy will become a little more suggestible to when I ask him to do something that is Not The Way.

pony is never wrong

One area of focus for this stuff is going to be Speedy’s hind feet. He can be kinda clueless about his hind feet, has some bad habits in down transitions that will definitely bite us in the long term (he bounces on the tendons of his stifles in down transitions sometimes; it’s incredibly uncomfortable and terrible for his stifles), and has so far been slightly resistant to my efforts to increase his proprioception behind. So that’s the theme of a lot of these ideas.

What Weird Things? In no particular order, here’s a list of the Weird Things that might work for this game, with different behaviors and approaches grouped by Thing. Different Weird Things will warrant different approaches. A lot of this stuff, I want Speedy to put his feet on or over. But there’s also stuff I want him to approach, “chase,” or ignore — so we can ignore that stuff in the show ring!

  • Water bottles (the noisy, crinkly kind)
    • nose target
    • front foot on bottle
    • back foot on bottle
    • water bottle maze
  • Feed bag
    • nose target (we do already do this)
    • front feet on bag
    • back feet on bag
    • feet on two different bags?
  • Tarp
    • front feet on tarp
    • back feet on tarp
    • all feet on tarp
    • tarp on back
    • tarp on head
    • slide tarp over body side to side
    • slide tarp over body front to back/back to front
  • Ball (still not sure if I’m going big yoga-style or soccer ball here)
    • nose ball
    • push ball
    • hind foot push ball
  • Cardboard box
    • push box
    • hind foot push box?
    • front feet on (flattened) box 1/15
    • hind feet on (flattened) box 1/15
  • ZIP STRING (I love this toy:
    • nose target
    • chase
    • ignore — do other behavior with zip string running
  • Poles (this is a big one, and we already play with poles a bunch)
    • step backwards over one pole
    • step backwards over series of poles
    • step backwards over 3 poles together (imagine a really wide pole)
    • step backwards over raised pole
    • sidepass over pole (front/hind feet split)
    • straddle pole (L/R split)
    • straddle pole and walk forward (L/R split)
    • yield haunches over/around pole 1/9
  • Black box (just a black object – not his fave color)
    • nose target
    • target from a distance
    • jump over (under saddle)
    • jump over (on the ground – a big ask!)
  • Flag
  • Frisbee
    • nose target
    • fetch
  • Balance pads
    • hind feet
    • all four feet
    • all four feet in different positions

We are not quite at 50 — 44, to my count — and we’ve already knocked a few off the list. So I need a few more weird ideas to add to this list, so I’m open to suggestions!

So far, this is SO FUN! One of the first nights I was home after Christmas I wasn’t up for a ride, so I just played around with Speedy yielding his haunches near and over a pole. He was so uncomfortable with the idea of moving his hind feet near a pole that he would take this big, ridiculous steps away from the pole at any opportunity. Despite being completely willing to balance both front feet on a pole at the same time (insert massive eyeroll here). So we just edged up to the idea of stepping over the pole with just his hind feet, and I accepted any try in that general direction.

this is massive progress for him, and he couldn’t really hold his legs this far apart for very long without getting some trembles in his leg muscles

I played with the cardboard box after bathing Speedy for his much-needed mid-season clip. He was pretty cranky after his bath and being harassed by my desperate attempts to dry him, and wasn’t really interested in playing with me in his stall. But once I pulled him into the arena with the cardboard box and started clicking for him doing weird things with the box, he was like “oh…. yes okay…. I like this game.” I would run across the arena with Speedy chasing me, throw the box on the ground, and then we would turn around to do both a front and then hind foot target. Such a good game.

I’m not sure what we will add next week — maybe I’ll finally get my hands on some nasty plastic water bottles??

on progress

I had…. a ride with Speedy today.

It wasn’t bad, at all. But it wasn’t great either. We worked on something hard for him (alignment) and we made progress. But I had a lot more moments of “no, not that” than I like, which made it feel like not-fun.

After our warmup, Speedy was trailing his haunches to the left in both directions, and didn’t really want to bring his outside front foot around in either direction either. When we’d get some nice bend he’d fall to the inside of whatever track we were on, and I found myself wanting to pull on the outside rein to get him back over there.

Going right, we did alright getting him a little more even and bringing his left hind back in line with his body. Going left, Speedy wasn’t really sure he could realign his body. I had to do a fair bit of bumping with both legs — inside leg to ask him to bend, outside leg to keep the shoulder from bulging too much, inside leg back to push the haunches out. To almost every leg aid, Speedy responded with “are you sure I couldn’t just trot instead?” And they were pretty nice trot transitions! But sadly, a nice trot transition wasn’t what I was after.

We did get there and then it felt awesome. Nice alignment at the walk, nice alignment at the trot. We had a quick canter, a couple of really nice transitions, and I called it quits.

I’m definitely going to be using these for a while

While I was pretty happy with how good things felt toward the end of our ride, I found myself wondering when we would get past the looooong negotiations about Speedy aligning his body (although, lawl, reading through my most recent post I can clearly see that this discussion has already shortened considerably). When would alignment be something I could just quietly correct and Speedy would be like “oh yeah, I am supposed to hold my body like that”?

After the rest of the day to marinate on this ride, I realized what progress this ride actually represented from Speedy. In February, I’m not sure moving his haunches independently of his shoulders was even on Speedy’s radar. (In January, we didn’t have alignment problems because Speedy was stiff as a board, hah!) In March, we did “shoulder-in” in lessons but it was a mess of us falling off the wall without any bend through Speedy’s ribcage. In April, asking Speedy to respond to my left leg and then my right leg would have sent him into a fit of nose-in-the-air-zipping. Even in August, trying to address the alignment was an invitation for a stabby, annoyed trot and bulging underneck. And just last month, if I’d asked Speedy to move his shoulders and haunches that many times but insisted he not trot, he would have puffed up against me and balked.

cantering through water is another thing we need to do some homework on this winter

Sometimes I swear he fills his body with air and tones up all his muscles to literally push my aids away from his body and ignore them better. But today, he was soft. Confused, but soft. And after a little bit of insisting that he had to walk and bring his left hind under his body and not stick his right front to the ground and keep walking forward, we managed to do all of those things.

It doesn’t feel the same as progress with Murray, and it doesn’t feel the same as progress in our jump lessons or out on cross country (Murray tolerated drilling/collecting reps on something new way better than Speedy does). But it is absolutely progress, and it’s probably more important than jumping a bigger table or oxer, or coursing with more height.

And importantly for me — and I will fully admit I don’t really have a plan here just yet — is going to be how I handle this progress tomorrow in our ride. I want to avoid bullying Speedy about it, but I also want to get us both to a place where we can find that alignment again and start reinforcing that neural pathway.

We can both be a bit funny about learning.

You know how sometimes you’ll come up against something different or weird in a ride, and then hours or later the solution or best response to that problem smacks you right in the head (often when showering)? I’m definitely deep in one of those phases right now. It happens to me…. daily. Though this time it didn’t work out that way — this time, I got to reflect on something for hours and realize I got a pretty cool response in the moment!

So this is my note to future-Nicole to recognize those moments and remember: there was a time when Speedy couldn’t do shoulder-in and couldn’t align his body tracking left (and there was a time when Speedy couldn’t do much more than run around with his nose in the air!). But you’re probably past that now, and you’ll get past whatever seemingly insurmountable wall you’re staring up at right now too.

bullying your pony 101

Post AECs Speedy and I both took a bit of time off. Speedy had some training rides with TrJ while I was away at a a hazelnut conference (sponsored by Ferrero, so the swag bags were delicious) and then we had a light week while TrJ was away at another show. We did some TrJ-assigned homework (stretchy everything), went out on the trails, and generally took it easy.

so even and square and tight and *adorable*

We’ve got a long list of homework items that have been accumulating this season. Showing is training in its own right (and untraining, if you’re me, lawl) but there are some problems that you don’t want to dig into until you know you have a long time to figure out the causes and consequences. I decided that this was the time to start addressing some of those problems, since we have no shows on the horizon.

So I did it in the most Nicole way possible, which was to focus on one thing to the exclusion of all others and aggressively attack it from all angles while somehow simultaneously avoiding any consistency in method of attack. Yes, it does take talent to assault your problems in just such a fashion and no I can’t share the techniques with you. You need a PhD to be this stupid (but sure, if you have a doctorate of some kind hit me up and I’ll give you the step by step run down).

I very really do not understand how we scored in the low 30s all season with this much clearly apparent tension

The problem I exerted my energy on was Speedy’s right nose-tilt. I’m not going to pretend I really understand the underlying causes of this issue or why it even cropped up. But it showed up in May, has stuck around with varying degrees of tipsiness, and bugs the ever loving shit out of me. At one point this summer I was riding Speedy around to the left and I felt like he was looking at me with his right eye and judging me. (Logic. I has it.)

So I bullied the ever-loving shit out of my very kind, very tolerant pony until he said nothankyou. TrJ watched me struggle with basic flatwork for half an hour before asking me wtf I had done to Speedy. After I explained my, uh, predilection for bullying, she suggested that I stop that and my homework that week was to be a kind and compassionate partner to my horse.

shorty on the podium

The ironic thing about all of this is that one of my other big goals was to work with Speedy on developing a sense of joy and fun when I ask him to solve problems on the flat. At the moment, Speedy doesn’t really think of problem solving on the flat as fun. He thinks of it as… well, I’m not entirely sure. But it’s not a fun puzzle for him. And while problem solving — especially in dressage — and learning are work, I think they can be fun work….. right?

obsessed with this photo

It has now been 18 days since I bullied my horse.

It’s going pretty well. I took five days and just did silly, fun clicker games with him in the arena to re-establish our relationship and remind Speedy that arena times can be fun. I kept it all low key, incorporated all the behaviors I know Speedy likes, and made sure my treat pouch was filled with all the best treats. We’re still not entirely on the same page again. But we’re able to work on things in the arena again, and have productive lessons, which is a start.

In the mean time, there are a lot of other things I can work on with Speedy. Lots of them will probably even help us eliminate that nose tilt as he gets stronger on both sides of his body.

pony says no thank you to cantering four abreast

So that’s how I came off my best week and best riding all year and bullied my horse into low key hating me. I do not recommend. Luckily for me, Speedy is as forgiving as he is cute, and he’s back to snuggling me delightedly when I get to the barn. Thank goodness for kind ponies.

best week all year

I absolutely have a half-drafted show recap from June awaiting completion, but at this point it seems foolish to dwell that far in the past when just three five weeks ago I WAS AT THE AECs.


I put qualifying for the AECs on my “stretch goal” list this year, with no real expectation that we would get there. But if we got there, I was absolutely going to go to the AECs since they would be at Rebecca Farm — practically in my back yard compared to Kentucky. And then we qualified right out of the gate by coming in 2nd at our first show. I stressed a little bit getting my completion requirements when I had a stop in stadium at Inavale Farm (that stop ended up being a timely lesson that I needed), but we made it happen.

we have plenty of tension to work out of both our bodies

So we prepped for a big trip to Montana at the end of August. We had a six week break from showing after Inavale at the end of June (punctuated by an extra week of break for me while I had covid), took a trip out to Spokane to school cross country (very educational), and then hopped up to the Caber HT (super local for me, just barely two hours away) for one more prep pre-Rebecca. TrJ had a rider in the prelim and was in a Novice festival class herself, so Speedy and I got to spend the whole week up there and really soak in the atmosphere. USEA really goes out of their way to make this special for the BN riders and amateurs, and I appreciated it greatly.

when you can finally breathe after dressage

I’ve thought a lot about what to write about the AECs . I could write about our prep, I could write detailed recaps of each day and every ride, I could write about all the things I learned, about everything we took away — physical and metaphysical. But I think I just want to write about the smiling.

I’ve never been one of those people who smiles while they ride (lookin’ at you Olivia). When I’m riding I’m thinking, I’m focusing, I’m trying to make the ride better and give my horse what he needs. And when I’m thinking and focusing, I look… pissed.

the moment right before I get left — and I don’t even know why. the ground line is right there! why did I think Speedy would get tighter to that?

And — completely honestly — showing isn’t always straight-up fun for me. There’s always been pressure. Pressure not to let my horse explode, to give him a good ride, to show that he could be more than he looked like. That was Murray. And then with Speedy, pressure not to make mistakes, to give him a good ride, to do a good job so I wasn’t abusing the talents of this fun, talented, amazing (expensive, gulp) horse at beginner novice.

this screen grab is definitely the pinnacle of my riding skills — I MEAN COME ON

By the time we got the Rebecca though, I had somehow let all of that go. I was riding at Rebecca. I was awestruck and delighted to be there. I was happy for every hack we went on, every time I took Speedy out to hand graze; I grinned through our early morning lunges (okay yes, I cried with excitement a bit too) and smiled through every flat school. This horse is so easy to love, and the more I smiled the happier Speedy became.

our second fence — Speedy marched right up here

I made a mistake in my dressage test (which means I have had more tests with mistakes than without this season, oops) that took me out of 3rd place. Didn’t care. I gave my horse an awesome ride at the AECs.

he was perfect in the half coffin — I asked him to wait to the log in, then we settled for two strides and rode forward for two strides and he jumped the ditch like a champion hunter

I felt nervous for a few minutes before cross country. That anxiety that rises up from your stomach, sneaks up into your shoulders, and gets stuck as a buzzing in your ears. TrJ told me to warm Speedy up at the canter around the warmup and stretch him out and it all just melted away. And when I got out on course I rode my plan and Speedy was with me for every single step.

big pats for a genius coming out of the coffin

Those nerves came back for a minute right before stadium. I was a couple of minutes off my schedule walking down to the ring (always hard when they are running reverse order of go), and Speedy was a bit antsy so we trotted past a trainer friend of mine. She was like “don’t rush, you’ve got time!!” since her student would go in before me and she wasn’t even down there yet! But I’ve been late to warmup way too many times. I let the horse trot.

I was so excited to jump this corner and it jumped soooo well!!!

Once I got into the warmup I cantered around again and felt those nerves melt away just like they had before cross country. So there I was, cantering around the warmup with this humongous grin on my face, passing plenty of riders white-knuckled and tense. I wasn’t tense. I was riding at the AECs!!!!!

look out for his pony finals debut in ~10 years

My stadium course also rode right to plan. Do you know how good that feels? When everything rides exactly to your plan and you leave all the sticks up? IT FEELS FUCKING AMAZING DUDES.

looks familiar. i did not get left this time.

Finishing on my dressage score was all I wanted to do at the AECs and I did it. Everything else was gravy. At the end of the day two riders ahead of me dropped rails moving me up into fifth. I won some kind of pony award for the first placed pony in my division. My Adult Rider team finished second. I came away with sooooo many ribbons.

my face when they brought out the perpetual trophy at awards

If you get a chance to go to the AECs, do it. Even “just” at the Beginner Novice level, which I qualified my presence with all weekend. It was amazing. It was a week full of smiles and happiness and delight and good rides and joy. It was a week full of progress and learning in the best way. And in between there were quiet moments with my pony, sunrises alone together on the grass, afternoons sitting together on cross country, and meditative stall picking and butt scratching.

we got in a skosh tight to this one

It was worth every dollar I paid to get there, that week and along the way. Worth long hours in the orchard to make sure things were taken care of before shows. Absolutely worth all the hours in the tack wondering if I would ever figure out how to ride this horse.

look at that doll arm I’m using to slap my horse lol

Thank you, Speedy, for making my dreams come true.

get organized! (aspen h.t.)

The truck curse was still with me two weeks later when Aspen Farms Horse Trials rolled around. Wednesday I took an eight hour roadtrip back to Yakima to retrieve my beloved truck. Then the next morning, one of the tires was suspiciously low after I had topped it up the night before. Next, barnmate got injured rendering her unable to show. Day now thoroughly upside down, I zipped off to Les Schwab to get the hole in my tire fixed and TrJ rearranged her day to show barnmate’s horses for the weekend.

About four hours after I had intended to leave, I loaded Speedy up in my Loaner Trailer (I really, really like that trailer) where he looked at me suspiciously since he was alone, but stood still as can be for the whole ride. So still, in fact, that I pulled off at a truck stop to check that he was still standing in there. And he was, just…. completely still.

We have had an uncharacteristically wet spring in the PNW this year. We got 12.87″ of rain at my house in March, April, and May of this year. For the same period in 2020 we got 7.5″ and only 3.57″ in 2021. We had a few sunny days leading up to the show but the humidity was rising and the barometer was getting low (literally we measure these things at my house now). According to all sources, it was going to be a wet and wild one at Aspen.

It wasn’t quite raining men, but when I got there the parking area was an absolute mud pit. A friend of TrJ’s had kindly saved me a spot and I wrangled my trailer into it. I got Speedy unloaded and into his stall — literally the closest stall to the entry gate, which meant he had lots to gawk at all weekend — and then committed to tacking up for the shortest hack I could reasonably fit in because it was just raining harder and harder every minute.

wet wet wet. I bought this rain coat before Kentucky and it saved me at Aspen!
Lee Schaber

As an aside, WHY are people such assholes in show parking? I had to knock on someone’s LQ door to ask them to move their truck to get into my spot as they were blocking both the road and the spot. The group parked on the other side of the spot asked me to repark and move a little further away from their rig. I declined, since I didn’t think the ground would hold up to repositioning. This is show parking. The goal is to fit in as many rigs as possible, not provide you with luxury accommodations you wingdings. If you want a bigger spot, buy an RV spot.

During my hack Speedy decided he couldn’t possibly canter in the puddles in the arena, which was fairly worrisome. When I told TrJ she advised me to put in a couple of small grass studs for dressage the next day because — surprise!! — I got to ride on the grass. This actually worked out in my favor, as I’m not sure the property owner would have appreciated me studding up for dressage in his sand arena.

still not straight 10s for cuteness??? but got a compliment on his canter this time!

My ride time was 8:56, so after TrJ and I got barnmate’s horses settled in I poured myself a cocktail and tried to braid Speedy. People were cruising back in to the show grounds after dinner at that point, and Speedy was at his most gawkiest and fidgety. After getting three braids done in an hour I gave up, decided it would happen in the morning or not at all, and set myself a 4 am alarm. Worst case scenario I would beg off my failure to braid with the fact that it is beginner novice and — I think — not technically required.

I really need to get my own watch to wear to shows, because once again I had a bit of a timing panic when I heard the warmup/ring stewards calling the rider directly ahead of me. (Fortunately they were informing them they were three out or something, but it still got me a little worried.) Speedy did jump one puddle as we were cantering around in the warmup, and I was a little hesitant to really put my leg on him on the slick grass. TrJ encouraged me to trust that he had his footing and that I need to practice putting my leg on him because I need to be able to push him forward even over sloppy ground.

As far as the test went, it was the first time I got into the ring and could actually feel and ride and make adjustments during a dressage test, which was huge for me! I was chatting with a friend about it later and she described the contrasting feeling as “hoping your warmup was good enough and holds through the test,” which is how I normally feel going into a dressage test. Speedy, for his part, was excellent. I’m always so impressed with how he buckles down and is such as yes-man in the show environment. Yet another thing to love about him.

dressage test video:

My cross country ride was Saturday early afternoon. It rained hard Friday night, but by Saturday morning the sun was starting to peek out. Novice riders went in the morning and there were some pretty wild skid marks from the earliest horses on course. A couple of soggy course walks had me convinced that none of the questions on the course looked big or scary (and there was a sharkstooth that I was super excited to jump!) but that the quality of the footing would really be a deciding factor in how I rode. After her Novice XC ride, TrJ told me to put in some pretty big studs and feel it out as I went. Luckily, that week I had just schooled at Inavale in a lot of wet, sticky mud, so I had an idea of how Speedy might feel in those conditions and how I might want to ride him.

Luckily the ground had really firmed up by the time I got out on course, and Speedy didn’t have any footing troubles or hesitation compared to the horses in the morning. Speedy left the start box with the same open, easy canter that I’d felt from him at EI and I felt both excited and peaceful as we cantered over the first few fences.

I was excited for this ramp and Speedy jumped it in style
Cortney Drake Photography

I discovered at fence three that I had pressed the wrong button on my watch to get it to start, so I was running without minute markers. I tried on a long gallop stretch to get it started but couldn’t seem to find the “start” button (it’s just the biggest button on the watch, Nicole, no big deal) so gave up. I estimated that Speedy’s easy canter would be right on pace for the course (350 mpm I think?) so figured that as long as I moved my pace up from that a bit and made sure to gallop the longer stretches I would be fine.

The water entrance was where I had my first taste of trouble with Speedy: coming up to the wide, entrance he skittered to the right and I aaaalmost missed the flag. Later, walking the course at Inavale, TrJ explained to me that you really want young/green horses to be able to see their way into and out of the water. I clearly took too steep of an approach to this entrance, so Speedy’s eye was glancing right past the flag and around the water instead he of thinking about going through the water. The better approach would have been to go out wide to the right and turn Speedy to the water so he was approaching it more directly.


But we made it in and through, and I knew I’d need to purposefully half halt and put my leg on for the second water on course. I got excited and leaned for the long one to the sharks tooth, and then absolutely did not stay with Speedy with my body, so that jump was a bit ugly too.

Coming down the hill to the second water, I made that effort to purposely slow Speedy and point him into and through the water, and he entered with less hesitation this time. The second to last fence had been pulled off the course because the landing was a total swamp, so after the second water we had another long gallop stretch to just two more fences.

Nicole: so excited to jump this fence!!!!!!
Also Nicole: jumps the fence really poorly *facepalm*
Cortney Drake Photography

Speedy was careful with the terrain changes throughout the course. Aspen has both gently rolling terrain and some steeper knobs, pimples, and moguls that the course designers use liberally for all levels. Whenever we had a steep downhill, Speedy slowed to a trot as he assessed the grade and I legged on to encourage him to roll back into a canter when he was comfortable. I think it will be good for us to practice developing and maintaining an uphill canter even through those quicker terrain changes. But for now we have time to kill and it doesn’t matter if we trot a few downhill slopes. I’d rather than than have him panic and run downhill out of control.

Since I had no watch, I had no idea whether I’d come in on time on cross country and had to wait until scores were posted online. While I waited (and iced my horse) one of my best friends showed up with his daughters (his wife was one of the vets working at the show). Speedy napped and we put together an enrichment ball for him and the girls admired him (for about five minutes, and then they became distracted with the bed tucked up in the gooseneck of the trailer).

Sunday I didn’t ride until early afternoon again, and I spent the morning watching some of the 2*/Prelim with my friend and his daughters. Overnight the course designers and builders had to move sections of tracks and multiple fences for almost every single level for Sunday’s cross country. The rain (which started again Saturday night) and slop created by the horses that had already run cross country forced their hand. I cannot imagine the stress that must have caused everyone on both sides. Luckily, I got to do stadium on Sunday!

While I was warming Speedy up for stadium, I was coming around to one of the fences and as I was making the turn TrJ yelled at me “get organized!” This is not uncommon for me to hear from TrJ; I seem to be the perpetually disorganized. In this case though, I thought “I was just about to, uggggh!!” And then I realized…. TrJ wants me to get organized earlier than I think I need to get organized. The next go around I tried to organize myself through the turn, rather than on the straight away, and TrJ still beat me to the punch with her “get organized!” I definitely still have plenty to work on in the organization department.

omg the snoooot — Cortney Drake Photography

The stadium course at Aspen had a little more height than the one at EI, but once again was a really fun, flowing course. And this time I headed in with a determination to actually ride this course. I did a pretty good job of keeping Speedy steadily forward until we turned around to the vertical that was on the diagonal across the arena. It was a long approach after coming around the corner, and Speedy got way close and rapped it hard. After watching the video about a hundred times, I needed to get Speedy a bit better organizer earlier in the turn and keep the canter steady through the turn and down the long approach. I didn’t actually have enough space on the long approach to “just steady” after rebalancing, and Speedy moved up ever so slightly to the fence (which is his tendency anyway), getting us awfully close.

I love Speedy here, but there’s looots for me to work on.

After flagrantly turning back to check on that rail, we came around to the in and out. I’d definitely lost some control at this point and Speedy jumped crooked over the oxer in and then (of course) saved us over the out. Since Speedy powered up to fit in the two, when I sat on him to half halt to the final fence he didn’t immediately come back to me, so I figured it wasn’t worth making a big deal about it (spoiler alert: TrJ did not agree) and let Speedy carry us down to the fence.

Luckily Speedy is both quick and handy and he got out of his own way for the last fence as well and left that one up, so we had another double clear round under our belts.

Lee Schaber

The scores in our division at Aspen were nuts. The top six riders in my division all finished on their dressage scores — me included — and only a few riders dropped down during XC or stadium. I started in 9th after dressage and only moved up to sixth.

Regardless, I was super proud of both Speedy and myself for getting through our first soggy PNW event without any major mishaps! Although, we got super lucky and it wasn’t actually raining during any of our rides, and the sun even came out for our cross country run a little bit. But those frigid, soaking, Aspen (poor Aspen, always seems to happen at Aspen) weekends are a staple of the PNW eventing scene so we had to have one sooner or later.

Corney Drake Photography

Writing this all out, and watching all my videos again, it’s becoming clear to me that I need to invest a little more mental effort into getting Speedy and myself organized! I need to be quicker to get organized, and better about staying organized (since it’s more efficient to stay that way than it is to vacillate between organized and disorganized. Though honestly, I’m sure that will be a long-term piece of homework for me. Being organized is not my strong suit.

don’t forget to #hugyourhorse! Cortney Drake Photography

truck drama

In March I made a deal with a college kid I know who has a lovely trailer but no horses right now — I paid a bit of cash + annual maintenance to use her trailer this year. My thought was that by hauling myself to shows I’d save on hotel (GN trailer makes a great bedroom) and save on gas (would be driving my little car to shows anyway for packing/added mobility, so I’d be paying hauling + gas otherwise). So after topping up my coolant and obsessively checking my truck tires, I hooked up to my magnificent loaner 2+1 early in the morning, popped Speedy in the back (where he happily cromched hay) and made my way to the Columbia River Gorge about ten minutes behind my barnmate who was also hauling her horse + bedroom.

it’s an incredible drive

Shortly after we got though some sweet road work in Yakima Nation, I felt something weird go under the truck. I figured that it was something associated with the road work. Going down a hill shortly after that (it was a gently winding grade up and down through Yakima) I felt like my trailer brakes weren’t engaging appropriately and turned them up. Which was weird, since the last trailer I hauled was this one and the brakes were set just fine then. About ten minutes later I felt an ominious *clunk* and suddenly lost power steering. I looked at the dash to see “BATTERY NOT CHARGING” displayed.

At that point, I wanted to panic. But I had no cell reception, so who would I panic to? 911? Umm, hello dispatch? Yes, my emergency is that my truck has no power steering in Yakima Nation and my most prized possession in the world is being towed behind me and WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH MY TRUCK CAN YOU FIX THIS?!?!” I thought about calling my husband or my second husband to get help, and even played through those conversations in my head. What would happen? A big fat nothing. Neither of them could do anything to help me other than tell me to be careful. I slowed to 50 mph to help with the steering situation.

Then the truck brakes seized up.

Speedy is low-key obsessed with this pony so he was happy to get into the other trailer with his bestie.

I didn’t realize until hours later what an absolute pile of shit I could have found myself in. The road was gently curving and gently sloped, so I could manhandle the truck around the easy turns and use the engine compression to slow the truck down. But there are so, so, so many ways that could have gone so much worse. I am incredibly thankful the truck held out for me.

I immediately sent off a text to my barnmate (who had passed me when I pulled into a turnout) and told her my problem and that I would stop at the first gas station I found. Lucky for me, cell service came back and she got the message in time to pull into that first truck stop and tell me where she was. I had to muscle the truck into 1st and absolutely stand on the brake to get stopped, and nearly thought I was going to crash into a semi when I did. But I made it, and gladly threw the truck into park and stomped on the parking brake. I didn’t turn the truck off (no battery = no starting power) and immediately called my in-laws, who used to own said truck. They found me a nearby Chevy dealership and advised that I just get the truck to them and go onward with the horse in the other trailer.

We loaded Speedy into my barnmate’s trailer, arranged for the truck to get to Chevy, unhooked, threw a bunch of my stuff in her trailer, and Hazel and I climbed into the truck to continue our drive to EI. Once we got to EI I got Speedy settled, and yet another friend drove me 90 minutes each way to go rescue my trailer, stuff, and bedroom. All for the low low price of 5 gallons of gas and a bag of cheetos puffs. I have the best friends.

Speedy also feeling anxious post truck drama

Chevy told me later that the idler pulleys (which the engine drive belt runs on) had seized up and weren’t moving, so the only thing keeping the engine drive belt (and thus the engine) was the momentum of the truck and trailer. The engine drive belt powers all the auxiliary functions (7way plug, battery charging, power steering, power brakes) which is why I lost all of those functions. And, obviously, the truck was not operable. Lol.

I never want to go through truck drama like that again, but I’ve been assured that truck drama is just a part of what comes with having a truck. I’m also so grateful that I’ve had a bunch of experience driving different trucks, trailers, tractors, and various pieces of heavy equipment that my incredibly shallow understanding of engines and equipment was enough to help me get the truck and trailer stopped safely.

I’m definitely not going to stop my neurotic checks of tire pressure, oil, and coolant (especially on an older truck). But I’m definitely investing in some better hauling insurance and will be traveling in a caravan whenever I go longer distances!

getting back into it (ei h.t.)

When I lived in California we used to say that Trainer B was cursed because her truck would always break down at the most inopportune time: on the way to horse shows. Since my truck shat the bed right in the middle of Yakima Nation with no cell service while I was hauling, I’m starting to think I’m the cursed one.

Seriously, love everything about this horse.

With my amazing barnmate’s help and some in-law advice I did eventually make it to Washington State Horse Park on Thursday afternoon. After getting Speedy settled in, taking a little three hour road trip with a friend to rescue my trailer, and schlepping enough of my shit back and forth from my friend’s trailer to get me sorted for the night, I had just enough time to squeeze in a humid sunset ride. I walked for a long time clicking and treating Speedy for woah-ing. We were both edgy to start with but as we meandered Speedy slowly relaxed and so did I. I had enough time to trot and canter around near the dressage court that I would ride in, and to wander around the warmup as well.

I got lucky and my friends from OldTrJ’s barn wandered by right as I was starting to sort out my bed up in the goose of the trailer and dragged me back to their camp for leftover pasta. After which I wrapped Speedy and took him out for a romantic late-night stroll. We were the only ones out, and the only sounds were horses munching and shifting in their stalls. It was so peaceful and beautiful in the dark with just me and Speedy. So despite all the drama Speedy and I got in a nice ride, I got a square meal in me, and I had a nice warm, dry bed to sleep in with only a Hazel-sized lump in the middle weighing down the blankets.

for something that only weighs 37 lbs, this dog can exert some serious gravitational force on some blankets

I didn’t ride until the afternoon on Friday, but spent much of the morning schlepping my stuff back and forth to get reorganized and relocate everything (that had once been carefully packed and organized. Sigh). TrJ told me to get in a prep ride in the morning which was absolutely mind blowing to me. Ride my horse… twice? In one day? On dressage day? Twice?

But TrJ is the boss and so I tacked up early for a warmup prep ride. It was pretty surreal, honestly. I walked into the warmup in just normal riding clothes, clearly not show clothes, and let Speedy wander around smelling piles of poop while I listened to trainers coaching their riders and watched riders stress over their warmup. And I got to just… chill. When we felt ready I picked up a trot and did some work, keeping it light. All of my focus was turned on to just us as the warmup moved on around us. It was bizarre to be that person in warmup who is just doing their own thing, pursuing their own goals, staying out of peoples’ way but otherwise immune to the world around them.

This mane is a NIGHTMARE to braid. It’s pretty thick, which is made worse by the fact that I cut it a little too short back in April. Plus his hair is pretty stiff so it’s always trying to escape from the bounds of the braid itself and loosening the braids over time. I had to go to California to get a braiding lesson to do a better job.

When my dressage time finally rolled around I was way more nervous than for my morning prep ride. Speedy was awesome though. After TrJ warmed us up, we marched right into that dressage court and I robotically made my way through the test just desperately trying to stay on course and keep Speedy somewhat on the bit (really still working on the rideability for us). I only really remember two things:

  • one, coming down into the walk and thinking “holy shit we are walking so slowly” and “this free walk is going nowhere” and was convinced I’d get a 5 or lower on those movements.
  • two, Speedy got super behind my leg in the canter-trot transition right and then glugged into the walk early. Rather than kick him back into the trot and deal with the ugly fallout of that, I just let him ooze into the walk a whole letter early.
Obviously cried with happiness after my dressage test, and then was even happier to see this score. 32.4 WITH an error, holy shit. Though I didn’t think “know thy test” was as funny as my friends did. Like uh, duh, yes that is a given.

On stadium morning, I made a classic Nicole error and mixed up my SJ and XC times and got on Speedy an hour before my ride time. Oops. Then I stayed too long in the “flatting” zone of the warmup, and TrJ had to hustle me over the warmup jumps so I would be warmed up.

Speedy was awesome for stadium, of course. The course was set pretty soft and wasn’t too exciting or technical, and we cruised right around. The first few jumps I got some awkward tight spots despite trying to move Speedy up to better ones. As the course went on things smoothed out and got better. Right up until the oxer in to the two-stride, where I leaned for the long one and Speedy intelligently crammed another small stride in and lifted his feet up over it so we didn’t take it down. We somehow still fit in two, because this pony is a freaking genius.

Really, we did not need to get that close.

Later TrJ asked me if I noticed that Speedy’s stride got bigger and bigger throughout the course. I paused for a long time, wishing I could somehow say yes to that question but the answer was solidly “nope”.

After icing Speedy I headed over to the volunteer tent to see if I could help out, but they were full on volunteers for the afternoon! Instead, I signed up for a volunteer shift as the stadium timer the next day after my XC ride was over but before barnmate would want to leave (I got to time her division!). Then we walked over to the Preliminary and Intermediate XC courses (about a mile hike away) and watched the prelim riders go!

We were pretty forward and flat to this fence, but I really wanted Speedy to rebalance in anticipation of the down bank coming up next. It felt scrambly at the time but doesn’t look too bad in the video!

On Sunday I made a much more classic-Nicole mistake and was running late for my XC warmup. Barnmate hustled me into the warmup where TrJ told me to stay calm and that I had plenty of time. The in-gate people were hustling me along though, so TrJ sent me over the X three times, the vertical twice, the oxer twice, and the natural and sent me over to the start box. What I additionally didn’t know is that they were a) sending people to the start box so early because it was about a 4-5 minute walk to get over there and b) the starter was running early!!!! The rider behind me was already walking to the start when I left warmup, so I hustled Speedy along and trotted part of the way only to find… nobody there when I got there. The starter offered to let me go early, so I took him up on it.

I was (obviously) a bit frazzled when I left the start box, but Speedy fell right into this rhythmic, rangy canter and pulled us toward the first fence without feeling rushed or frazzled. I had gotten the minute markers from another rider while we course walked the night before, and Speedy was right on the first minute marker at fence 3. After fence 4 we had a bit of a gallop stretch, so I put my foot on the gas and Speedy was happy to pick up the pace.

His old owner braided his tail for XC but I love how expressive and full of motion it is!

I got surprised at the water, where Speedy slowed to a walk to step in. He’s always been a bit funny about water at home, but never had a problem with it out XC schooling. But he went, so I didn’t think much of it (which almost got me in trouble at Aspen).

The only thing on course that I was actually worried about was the down bank, which I am historically terrible at. But Speedy is the most reasonable and conservative creature about down banks and steps right down them so smoothly. TrJ also gave me great coaching on them when we were schooling and told me to hold on with my low calf and not my thigh (which is my instinct and that of many other riders), so that my seat could move but my base of support wouldn’t. And Speedy, true to his pattern, stepped right down.


We trotted a brush fence on a downhill after the bank (I would have preferred to canter but Speedy chose a trot, and I prefer an organized trot jump to a scrambly canter jump) and then it was a pretty good uphill canter to the finish fences. Which is the best. Cantering uphill and feeling a horse fold up under you and really dig into the footing is amazing.

We were in 7th-ish after dressage. We moved up to second after stadium, and a clear fast cross country round meant we finished there as well.

While I could imagine a slightly better ending to my first show in four years (only a little bit of time separated me from the leader), finishing on my dressage score, getting a personal best, having fun the entire time, and getting a ribbon for my efforts was a pretty incredible way to get back into the game.

nomnom ribbon

Full weekend video here

everything was fun and nobody had diarrhea

I truly thought that three horse shows in a row, two weeks apart, would be a good idea. (Great idea. Just the best idea. Never met a better idea.) As usual, my ambition exceeded my time management and it started stressfully and ended stressfully and was wet af in the middle. But oh well! I got lucky and the weather was on my side. All that rain meant the farm could get by with minimal attention, and I only had to dip out of one horse show to get home and spray some trees.

by Kayla Norene Photography

Hopefully I have enough memories to do a deep dive on each show (for posterity as much as anything!) but the big picture overview is: this horse rocks.

I never get to see Speedy lying down so was delighted by his constant napping at Inavale

I wasn’t really present for my dressage or stadium rides at our first show (Equestrians Institute). I mean, obviously I was there and I rode the horse. But other than generally piloting and directing, I certainly wasn’t making any actual riding decisions. When we got out on cross country Speedy fell into this easy, rhythmic, relaxed canter. As we cruised around the course jumping everything like we’d done it a hundred times before my brain finally caught up with how much fun Speedy and the rest of my body were having.

behold: the lifeless dressage zombie (by Kayla Norene Photography)

And then the fun just kept funning. At Aspen (show two), it was pouring rain from Thursday through Saturday afternoon. Think half an inch of accumulation overnight. Sure, that’s not a lot for some parts of the country, but in June in Washington, that’s a shitload of water. Everything was wet. I was soaked all day Thursday and most of Friday. Speedy was complaining about the footing in our warmup on Thursday so I studded for dressage Friday. He jumped puddles in the warmup. I squelched my way through the cross country course walk. And it was still fun.

everything is wet (by Lee Schaber)

Inavale (show three) was a rough one — tense dressage, drove home to go tend to trees, stop in stadium, hot as balls for all rides. And still I scored one of my best dressage scores ever and then turned it around for a confidence-building cross country run. It went from a bit rough to pretty rough to really good, and Speedy and I did it together.

No Inavale photos yet, so here’s another cute one from Aspen. I bought all the photo packages. (by Cortney Drake Photography)

I can’t say enough good things about this horse.

I knew riding was fun. And I knew horse shows were fun. But I had no idea they were this much fun. In the cold, in the rain, when my truck breaks down, when I have to go home to do work. When my trainer has to warm me up early then zip off to another rider, when I’m putting in a solo prep ride or hacking around to stretch Speedy’s legs. There’s no part of it where I’ve thought “man I wish this was going some other way right now”. There’s no time when I want it to just be over and finished with so I can stop stressing about it. I can eat, I can drink, and I don’t get stress colitis.

by Cortney Drake Photography

I have the coolest horse. I am so lucky.

speedy learn-er-ing

Thank you everyone for your very kind words and messages about Murray. I spent a lot of time reading and re-reading peoples’ comments and memories about Murray here and on Facebook and Instagram. It really is comforting to know how many people laughed with us and appreciated Murray’s Murrayness. I also appreciated all of your messages about the timing and method of Murray’s euthanasia. They are important discussions to have, and I’m glad that so many people were open to having them.

Speedy has also been a huge comfort over the last few weeks. He’s a super cuddler and always up for a snuggle (especially if you rub his snoot at the same time). He’s very much a quiet-steady-loving presence that I haven’t really experienced before. It really is wonderful to have a horse who enjoys my company as much as I enjoy his.

Also, this little weasel is turning into the adventure buddy I didn’t know I needed.

Speedy has also been making just incredible progress under saddle. I’m just so impressed with how this little potato has been doing. Every week TrJ throws something new at us and every week we struggle, learn, rise to the challenge, and come out even better. And every week, a new challenge awaits and Speedy is right there for that one too.

I have so much riding strength to catch up on to keep up with this nugget. Also lolling at his butt dimple. Gotta watch the weight on this one.

There are so many puzzle pieces that have gotten us to this point — lessons (a crapload of them!), trainer rides, vet care, dentals, body work, bitting, off-campus adventures — but the piece that made both TrJ and I comment a few weeks ago is that Speedy is so much more receptive to learning. Or, as TrJ put it, “he doesn’t mind you training on him a bit.” (Lol trainer speak is funny sometimes.)

I love that he can just babysit himself for a few minutes on a stranger’s property.

I’m not going to say it’s all the clicker training, but that’s certainly a piece of it. At some point around the three-month mark, Speedy got comfortable with the idea that there were responses we wanted from him that wasn’t just zipping off. He also stopped trying to use speed as an evasion so much throughout a ride. He started trialing other responses, and realized that all the pats and good boys (and yes, treats) were us encouraging him to keep giving us those responses. Once we got some lateral aids on him and we could ask him to move his haunches and shoulders around a bit independently (though he’s still pretty sticky through the shoulders), we had some more movements we could put together to help him figure out even more things.

I used to think it was absurd to ride with your dog, but here we are. Speedy and Hazel both love it. Hazel thinks it’s the best game and just loves being in the same “room” as me. Speedy loves trying to catch Hazel and trying to boop her while she’s distracted. Several times during this ride he chose to “chase” Hazel as his treat after a click. I thought it was a great opportunity to work on working with distractions.

Speedy even seems more into solving puzzles under saddle. Often we’ll get to work and I’ll start clicking for correct responses or good posture and Speedy will start out eagerly stopping and reaching back for a treat. As we move on, he’ll more and more go for a walk and stretch break after his treat. And as I’ve been phasing out the clicking, or forgetting to click, or working hard in a lesson and not able to find a good place to click, he’s still really responsive to my verbal praise and neck scratches. He doesn’t throw on the brakes and look back at me or anything. But I will see his little ears flick back and forward, then he’ll double down on what he’s doing with a renewed effort. It is very cute.

I got myself some literal gold stars for Speedy’s journal, but at this rate I’ll need to put one on every ride.

We have a couple five crazy weeks coming up. Next weekend is our first HT (eeeeeeeeeee!!!! but also holy shit I’ve spent so much money lately), then my in laws visit for some farm stuff, then we have another HT, then I have a family reunion, then our third HT before long break for the summer. The weather (wet, wet, wet) has not made this spring easy on the farm, so it will be flat out in between every HT making sure I stay on top of things here at home and don’t get behind going into summer.

We have so much packed in to the next month or so. Even if we didn’t, I’d be excited for my next month with Speedy. He is just so fun, all the time. But we DO have adventures planned, and getting him out to meet all my friends and get some pro photos is going to be awesome too. (But I will need to stop riding like a potato to enjoy those photos. For real.)

potato riding quality hopefully soon to be upgraded — to french fry, maybe?