so you bought yourself a micklem

I’ve been contemplating a new bridle for Speedy for a while now, for a variety of reasons. Primarily, he would probably benefit from a flash (to help stabilize the bit and to discourage him from evading by just gaping his mouth open while we work on the connection) and he would definitely appreciate some extra bit stability. He’s also quite sensitive, and I suspected something anatomical might make him a little happier.

After talking to Jen about her Fairfax bridle and drinking all their kool aid looking at their data on pressure points, I decided a regular fixed flash simply would not do. I know Speedy went in a micklem in Germany so it probably wouldn’t be overtly offensive to him, and since that bridle has a lot of articulation points (key to reducing pressure edges) I just went ahead and bought one, despite the atrocious leather quality.

cute hony tax

And then, because I figured I couldn’t possibly make it any worse/stiffer, I assaulted my brand new bridle with a variety of substances in an attempt to strip the leather finish off and transform it into something other than the peasant cardboard it arrived as.

In classic Nicole fashion, I thought ahead enough to test my attack on a piece of leather that would be easily replaceable if needed — one of the bit keepers — but did not think ahead enough to try a gentle option first. I went right at it with a dilute solution of ammonia in hot water. And boy, did that ever make a difference.

stripped left, virgin right

Right away the color started coming off on the cleaning rag, and the leather became more pale and matte. I could also feel a different in flexibility. I handed the two pieces to my husband and asked if he could tell a difference, and even in the dark he could feel a difference in the texture and flexibility of the two bit keepers. Emboldened, I started in on the next piece of leather with my rapidly-cooling ammonia solution, and was shocked to find that it stripped completely differently.

both stripped, cold ammonia solution on the left, warm ammonia solution on the right

Instead of evenly stripping, the color started coming off very patchily. Of course, this just made me rub it with even more ammonia solution, which made the color even patchier. I experimented with a light pass but more physical rubbing on the two shorter bit keepers, and the finish hardly came off at all. The only difference I could identify was that the ammonia solution had been warm when I started this experiment. So as I started in on the browband, I decided to see what would happen if I just applied warm water to the pieces.

after the finish came off the leather was a little bit scarily pale, but darkened when dry

This turned out to be the trick, and in tap water as hot as I could bear, I scrubbed away at the bridle with a cleaning rag and then eventually a gentle scrubby pad. For particularly stubborn sections — the crown piece and any of the leather pieces with buckles on them, interestingly — I added a little dab of dish soap and that seemed to cut through the wax/epoxy finish pretty effectively. I could actually feel the finish separating slimily from the leather with my fingers.

much more flexy

At this point the pieces actually felt and smelled like regular leather. They were matte and soft to the touch, much more flexible than when they originally arrived, and quite a bit lighter in color. A better color, in my opinion.

washed browband, crown piece, and noseband compared to straight-out-of-the-box reins

I wanted to oil them, but since I didn’t have any neatsfoot oil or a bucket at the house, thought maybe I could just slather the leather in the Antares balm/baum and get them to soften further that way. So I slathered it on, put the bridle in the warmest part of my house (over the fireplace on a towel) and left them overnight. It did not work. They were gross and sticky in the morning, and as I buffed off the baum residue even more color came off with it.

warmest seat in the house!

Off to the feed store I went, and the next night I put all the bridle pieces in a bucket with Leather New Oil (a Farnam product) and set that over the fireplace to stay warm. I picked Leather New because I wanted something light, and I’ve found that neatsfoot doesn’t always absorb completely. If you’ve ever let neatsfoot get cold, you’ll have noticed that it separates and then solidifies. [I suspect this is because it’s a compound of many different organic oils (rendered and purified from shin bones, ick) with different properties and melting points.] I wanted something lighter, that would be more guaranteed to get into the leather. Also, I kinda wanted something synthetic so it wouldn’t rot. Leather New Oil basically feels like hydrophane, and it soaked right into the bridle quite happily. After soaking all the pieces in the bucket for a while, I left them out on a towel to finish absorbing the oil overnight.

darker and much more flexible

The leather absorbed plenty of oil and darkened up significantly. All of this also revealed this odd brushed texture to the leather.

also appreciate that you can actually see the arrow pointing to the front now

I finished up by rubbing in a thin layer of the Antares baum, and there was an itty bit of colour leeching on the sponge but not a ton. I’ve yet to clean the bridle with any glycerin soap, so that’s still a question mark. And I obviously have no idea how it is going to hold up long term. But I’m pretty happy with how it’s turned out so far, and it’s made the bridle much more pleasant to touch, adjust, and be around — a major win in that regard, at least.

I took my bridle in to Gallops to compare to a new one — mine is definitely more relaxed (though the new one is zip tied into that position on the backer) and felt less plasticky.

On the one hand, this seems like way more effort than anyone should have to go to to get their bridle to not feel like peasant cardboard. It is ridiculous that this highly functional, well-designed, thoughtful piece of equipment arrives feeling like it’s been coated in a thin layer of plastic. I had to soak it in HOT OIL (okay, warm oil) for crying out loud. Maybe there’s something the Irish know or do with their brand new tack that we aren’t aware of over here. Maybe the exceptional damp of Ireland makes it so the bridle needs that plastic exterior shell to avoid mold. I have no idea, but would welcome answers.

And here is my bridle (bottom) in comparison to my barnmate’s older and very well-cared-for micklem (top). Hers is softer/more flexible than mine, but she thinks use and regular cleaning accounts for that. And hers obviously still has more of the sheen/finish, though not nearly as much as a brand new one.

On the other hand, it’s one evening’s pretty easy, tv-watchable-audiobook-listenable “work” in tack care that already seems to be paying off in spades since I can actually — gasp — undo and redo the buckles without needing a pair of pliers.

Obviously your mileage will vary, but I see no reason that you couldn’t strip the finish from a used micklem and oil it up to soften it. If you do experiment with this, let me know how it goes.

cowboy talk episodes 2-4

January 3rd I got back in my truck for my last drive to California specifically to see Speedy! I had lots lined up for this trip — working with Sheryl again on the 4th, farrier on the 5th, Saddle Club Camp the 7th-9th, and a vet appointment for the travel paperwork on the 9th. So I was pretty really not happy about getting a major stomach bug on New Years Day and puking all night long on the 1st and being unable to eat, drink, or do anything other than lie around under blankets on the 2nd. (Though I did appreciate the irony that the disease I caught after a family gathering in the age of covid was a fucking toddler stomach bug.)

I rallied though, and on the morning of the 3rd I filled a yeti with very thin congee, loaded up an audiobook (Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik), and made a run for the border. Being dehydrated and having not a scrap of food in your body has its benefits for long distance driving, and I made it in record-setting time.

first day home and being a v. good boy

This time around Speedy was not Sheryl’s demo horse, but we still got plenty of individual attention. She honed in pretty quick on the fact that I hadn’t been keeping up with my “my space is not for you to invade” homework. I am really bad at keeping that boundary with a horse, and since I have a suspicion that Speedy’s mouthy-Nicole-nibbling is one of the ways he deals with this anxiety, I’m not keen to press the issue with him right now.

But I did practice keeping my personal space while we watched the other horses in the clinic and Speedy was perfectly capable of relaxing and hanging out with me without nibbling on me.

The first big lesson for Speedy in this clinic was yielding his shoulders. In the close-up work, Speedy couldn’t seem to get his feet out of his own way to step over and move his shoulder away from Sheryl, even in a pretty shallow ask for him to abduct. When she started working him in the round pen his lack of understanding really became clear. Speedy was happy to change directions by stepping in to Sheryl. But he just could not comprehend an inside turn where he did not try to take space from her. He really, really could not comprehend it.

overreacting

Sheryl was not asking in such a way that warranted the rearing, though obviously she was escalating the pressure to get some kind of reaction. Speedy, for his part, was not paying enough attention to Sheryl to notice the quieter asks. That crust of inattention was still there. MIL and I have done groundwork with Speedy before every ride for months, but it seems like we’ve not actually made progress on the “paying attention” front. Which is a bummer.

This scene played itself out again a few days later at Saddle Club Camp, where Kate worked with Speedy both nights. Admittedly, Speedy was in a more distracting environment at Kate’s, it being a new barn with other horses going around the arena and all. But again, Kate wasn’t asking for much. The asks weren’t hard or big, and they shouldn’t have been that challenging. But Speedy couldn’t bring himself to give enough of his attention to Kate to hear the subtle asks.

oh were you saying something? i wasn’t listening to you, i was staring at the driveway

Kate, to her credit, immediately started to pull from a different groundwork toolbox. I won’t pretend I really understood exactly what she was doing, but I later found out that part of her tactic was changing her position to see if that gave her better access to different parts of Speedy’s body, specifically his shoulders.

There was a fair bit of quiet crouching and watching, letting Speedy think it out and process. For his part, he did a fair bit of tongue chewing. The next night Speedy was already more tuned-in, but Kate also started with different asks, and the whole session moved much more slowly.

quietly shit talking me, I’m sure

Kate and I talked a bit after she worked with Speedy, and she agreed with me that there’s a pretty crusty crust there. There’s also a fair bit of underlying anxiety, which is potentially what Speedy’s crusty inattention is masking.

For my part, I’ve noticed that even though Speedy is a very prosocial and alert horse, he’s actually a pretty slow learner — on the ground, under saddle, and with clicker training (bizarre for such a food motivated creature). Which doesn’t really make sense. Prosocial, alert animals should be quick learners. Instead, it’s like he hasn’t quite figured out that he can work with humans to alleviate his discomfort or get something thing he wants, and the fact that I’m there making suggestions is a crazy coincidence.

I have this pet theory that horses who are easy and biddable from the beginning can get short shrift on the training front. They do a lot of the basic/early/easy things — like leading or lunging or standing tied — right, so repetitions get skipped because they don’t “need” them. But those early repetitions are what help horses (or dogs or cats or children or whatever) learn the learning paradigm. Some harder lessons may never happen. If the horse never really makes a big deal out of a spook, there’s no strong motivation to take the time to really de-spook-ify them to all kinds of other stimuli. If the horse is always paying just enough attention that they pretty much do what you ask, then it could be easy to skip over the lessons that remind them to tune in all of that attention. So then you end up with a horse who has reached the end of the easy things they just naturally knew how to do, but they’re not entirely sure how to process the give/take/pressure/release that enables them learn harder things. It’s just my own musings, but especially in a sales program, I could definitely see how that would happen.

So, because such is life, no clear lessons or answers in groundwork lessons 2-4, though I definitely got more data. Kate encouraged me to keep playing with and experimenting with the groundwork, even though I’m still developing my understanding and knowledge. I probably won’t screw it up too badly. There’s lots to work on here — developing Speedy’s attention span, drawing his attention more to me than to the outside, encouraging him to shed some of the crust and let us in a bit more. Hopefully the groundwork plus the clicker training will accelerate this process and help him learn a bit more about learning, and we can avoid that “oh shit” button in the future.

rough week

Speedy’s first week+ in Oregon was probably not his favourite week+ ever. While the grass was lush, the sun was (mostly) shining, and the stalls comfy, he moved from paddock life (albeit a sand paddock) to stall life with very limited turnout. Unfortunately, the “all weather turnouts” that NewTrJ inherited at the barn turned out to be very much not that and so all the horses are sharing bits and pieces of turnout in the round pen and one small paddock where they can get it.

however there are *amazing new friends* to be had

Add that to the plummeting temps (lows in the low-20s lately, which is cold for us) and the new routine, and Speedy was not his normal, chill self. I made a point of getting to the barn every day to get him out of his stall for as long as I could. I’m so grateful this horse is highly grass motivated and a pleasure to hang out with, because I did a lot of standing around on the end of a lead rope watching Speedy eat grass last week.

He made one prison break attempt from his stall early on (ran right past me and speedwalked down the aisle), but since then has satisfied himself with dumping his water every day and throwing his feed pan around to indicate his displeasure. I suspect that before long we will be strapping everything in this horse’s stall down, but until I get him some toys he actually uses (surprise surprise the jollyball remains ignored), I’ll let him have what little joy he can get from his feed pan.

hand walking in the woods

Fortunately, NewTrJ has turnout at the top of her to-do list. She’s not really the sort to talk idly about her plans. She seems more like the make a plan –> enact the plan type. And it’s not just my horse being a menace at this point. NewTrJ’s ponies are also sick of not getting turnout.

This week also brought us our first three lessons! So far, NewTrJ has identified the same rickety foundations and plot holes that MIL did, though her plan of attack is slightly different. Speedy has responded with his favourite response to new/different pressure — his patented Blue Steel Angry Alpaca. But we are chipping away at it, as well as a few other evasions that are just bits of his pony personality — using his Speedy-ness to mask secretly being behind the leg, leaning on the left leg,

not NewTrJ riding but an extremely accurate depiction of Speedy’s go-to

It’s a lot of change for the little guy all at once. Fortunately, fingers crossed, the weather looks like it will hold a little longer, which will help with both construction and my ability to sit around with him while he grazes. Hang in there, Speedy! Turnouts are coming!!

en route

HUGE AMAZING LIFE CHANGES TODAY: Speedy is finally home!!!

Speedy boarded a semi rig yesterday morning around 10 am (a shockingly civilized time for horse haulers) to come and live in Oregon with me. Not with me like at my house. I don’t do horses at my house (I have no fences, no barn, no arena, and no desire to wake up at 6 am to throw hay). But to my trainer’s place.

Which brings up another big change: Speedy is not going to TrJ’s.

This WikSmart cooler is super neat! It has belly and chest panels that smush up against the horse to get those hard-to-dry spots, and it wicks so well that sweat was beading up on the outside of the fabric after a while.

When I had Murray in my trainer’s program in California, a few people left the program here and there saying that they just weren’t getting what they needed out of our trainer. I was always a bit confused by that. B let students haul out to other trainers, bring in other trainers, go to clinics, run clinics, take weekly lessons, take daily lessons…. the sky was the limit on how you wanted to learn, really. And while I could see shortcomings in B’s teaching philosophy, I also strongly felt that a good student could get what they needed out of any reasonably good teacher. No teacher would be perfect, but when you’re obsessed with learning you don’t need fantastic teachers, you just need a teacher.

Over my three years at TrJ’s program, I’ve come to understand what those people meant. I have had great lessons and great rides on great horses in TrJ’s program. But there was just something…. not there for me. Part of it was certainly TrJ’s reluctance to take riders to or bring in clinicians other than one or two approved instructors, once a year. Another was that I never felt like my riding development was a priority for TrJ. Probably this was because I never had my own horse there and never made competitions a priority. It was probably also because I have some training/philosophical differences with TrJ that I discovered early on, and wasn’t ready to let go of them to embrace her ways. Doubtless she could tell I wasn’t 100% in on her program and subconsciously reflected that lack of commitment back to me.

Speedy was a little bit toooo interested in touching Sebastian’s butt on our trail ride. Also L and I kept swapping/messing up their names and it was so embarrassing, like when I don’t know what name to yell at the dog.

All of those things on their own, would have been totally manageable for me. But together they just added up to a program where I wasn’t getting what I needed.

Last year, I was talking with our course designer for WSS and he let me know that a new trainer would be moving to my area, and strongly encouraged me to get in touch with her if I was serious about my riding goals. This, of course, inspired a flurry of internet stalking, trying to figure out said trainer’s timeline without harassing her, and playing out scenarios in my head. I wanted to wait until the right time to get in touch, and make sure that plan EuroPony really was going through before I tried to commit my horseless self into her program.

As we know now, it did go through, Speedy is here, and NewTrJ* said I was welcome to join her as soon as she was moved up here. So Speedy headed directly to her barn in the wee hours of this morning (aka standard operating hours for horse haulers).

(*Also a J-named trainer, so TrJ she will stay.)

I had this arrangement sorted by the time Speedy’s sale went through, and then I just had to sit on my decision and find the right time to talk to TrJ about it. I dawdled longer than I probably should have. I didn’t want her to get frustrated and kick me out, because I was having a great time with Patrick, but I also didn’t want her to be holding a stall for me that I would never use. So I bided my time for an early November chat. Then she had a hip surgery, then a setback in hip surgery recovery, then her dog died, and then for three straight days every time I loitered to try to get a hold of her one-on-one everyone and their mom showed up loudly needing her attention.

despite having an auto-water and bucket immediately to his left, Speedy desired this algae-mosquito water

Finding the gumption to talk to TrJ face to face about my decision was hard. I sweated about it for days, and on the way to the barn I literally recited what I wanted to say to her. I didn’t beat around the bush: I told her that I realized Speedy (and I) needed a program where he could get trainer rides. He’s still green enough that he needs someone educated to help him learn how to do the things. And my schedule is stupid enough that there are times — sometimes weeks — when I’m literally unavailable to ride my horse. If I want to have any hope of competing, I’m going to need someone to be training my horse and training me how to ride that trained horse. TrJ was obviously bummed but understanding, and we left things on a good note with the door always open to me. For which I am grateful.

And that right there is another big change. I was not a “full training” rider in California. I was a ride-or-die-d-i-y when it came to training. I wanted to learn to do the thing but I also wanted to learn how to teach the horse the thing and I wanted to teach the horse the things myself. I have a way better understanding now of the value of a good teacher and an educated butt to help a horse’s learning. And despite my feelings on being a good student and learning, I would never deny that fantastic teachers get concepts across better, faster, and with more salience.

Kate did ground work with Speedy two nights in a row and said she could have kept working with him all week. Here they have a private discussion, indubitably about my shortcomings as a trainer.

I’m pretty excited about all these changes. The only bad thing is that NewTrJ’s place is about 40 minutes from my house (instead of fifteen, sigh). But lots of riders I know have further and less beautiful commutes to get to their horses. I’m excited to have NewTrJ teach me, and teach Speedy. I’m excited to get to see Speedy every day! I’m excited for all the adventures I already have planned for the hony.

I don’t believe in jinxes, so I’m not afraid to say it: We are going to have a great year.

speedy stalking

While I was in Germany I did some light stalking of my three favourite horses, but that was pretty much limited to their FEI records and whatever video I could view for free on rimondo. I didn’t manage to find all that much Speedy evidence online. I tried looking up his breeder’s name as it was spelled on his passport but got nothing, and hunting down his trainer and rider on the mighty Goog and Instagram didn’t get me much either. I wasn’t a very good CreepStar3000 — I kinda gave up after that, until I wrote Speedy’s last week’s pedigree post.

The ticket to Speedy stalking, it turned out, was his brother — brothers, actually. After finding Ulisses on Ponyforum, I managed to make my way to his pedigree on All Breed Pedigree (I had checked there earlier but didn’t find Speedy, likely because I misspelled his name or dropped the PP from the end) and then promptly looked up the progeny record of Niina PP, Speedy’s dam.

Niina has four listed offspring, all male. And so I did a quick internet search for Bravour PP, since it looked like he might have been kept a stallion. This led me to Bravour’s Facebook page, in Polish, but decipherable!

Once I was there, I found the breeder’s website listed on Bravour’s page and started stalking the breeder specifically. I had looked up the breeder’s name on Speedy’s passport already, but it hadn’t yielded anything. After I found her site, I contemplated emailing, but then I ended up finding her barn’s Facebook page and messaged her there instead.

Speedy’s breeder, Monika, was happy to hear from me and we chatted a bit about her horses. I asked how Speedy got his name, and she said “His name should have been start with S, like his father Simply the Best. He was very fast as a foal so I decided to give him the name Speedy Gonzales , like a cartoon hero from my childhood.” Which, lol, shoulda known. He was fast, cute, little, and needed and S name.

baby Speedy is cute AF but honestly it’s just Speedy but smoll. was hoping for some more redonkulous baby pictures.

I also complimented her on his amazing temperament, and Monika said that Speedy was “very streight and problemless foal from the very beginning”, which I’m guessing means he was an easy kid from the get go. In Monika’s program they “pay a lot of attention to the character of our foals, because we know they will be [children’s] mounts and future companions – their obedience is a guarantee not only [of] sports success, but also the safety of the young rider.”

I have this new pet hypothesis that the European model of pony championships (maybe their championships in general?) is a big part of why I ended up with such a steady genius of a hony. Pony championships seems to be a place for breeders to show off their program as much as it is for young riders — literally 12-16 year olds I’m not even kidding they are babies — to get a start at showing off their riding skills. For a breeder to show off their breeding stock among all those great young riders, those ponies really need to be 10s in rideability.

it’s a very brave hony, leading on the trails!

All four of Niina’s offspring are jumping fools. Which makes sense because Niina is herself the product of Monika’s pony GP mare, Novella, and the FEI Grand Prix stallion I’m still googoo over, Machno Carwyn. Novella only had a few offspring before her sport career began. Her sport career included competing in the pony GP (a mere 1.4m, not even as tall as I am at 1.5m) with Monika’s son, after which Novella was sold on to another young rider.

The oldest brother — Benjamin PP — is also the smallest, a little under 14hh. He’s the adorable petite kind of pony, and seems to be packing around a little kid these days. Bravour (picture at the link) is competing with an older junior, and has this super fabulous flaxen mane and tail. He’s also smaller than Speedy — 148cm maybe? an actual pony. They seem to have a great time at the .90 to 1.0m level!

(Speedy free jumping at 4 in the auction program.)

Ulisses, a 2019 model, is only 146cm right now. I’m not sure how much he would be expected to grow. When I asked about Speedy, I was told that ponies often grow to 2 or 3 and then not much more after that. So perhaps Speedy (153cm) will be the giant in his family.

Following along with Speedy’s breeder’s page has been pretty fun too. She doesn’t have a ton of horses closely related to Speedy, but it’ still neat to see his somewhat-distant relatives out and about performing. Plus pony foals! And occasionally when I dive really deep into her page, I’ll find a Speedy picture or video that I hadn’t uncovered before, which is always neat.

blogger secret santa in the 21st year of our lord covid

I was excited to join the blogger secret Santa again this last year, as I missed out last year. I cleverly, not to repeat the mistakes I’ve made in the past, put down the address of MIL’s, where I’d be spending Christmas this year, so my gift met me when I got there.

And then I was extra delighted to see a package from M over at Cruisen in Stilettoes. I got M as my recipient back in 2018, and had a ton of fun putting her gift together — a little Tesla Quilted Pony accented in red and black and silver sparkles. So when I saw that M was my gift-giver, I was like oh how the turns have tabled appreciated the circular nature of the world and how things go around and come around.

I mean, it looks *just* like Tesla

I’m absolute shit at helping people get me gifts. I really don’t like stuff, and any of the things I actually want or need I can just get for myself, so walking the fine line of Nicole wants this and Nicole doesn’t think this is unnecessary stuff is a tough one. I’m happy to report, though, that M absolutely killlled it.

The first thing I found in my package were these adorable iron-on patches.

Very relevant, and will make an excellent addition to a cross country pad in the near future.

Next, I opened a little envelope to find these Speedy stickers. WUT. I haven’t figured out what to put them on yet, but I love them.

There was also a fabulous grey bonnet in there. Sneaky sneaky asked me what my cross country colours were going to be, and I blithely answered with no suspicion. Clever girl. Speedy went in a bonnet at competitions in the past, so I’ll probably keep him going in one. Also, they are cute.

Finally, after checking through the package once more to make sure I didn’t miss anything, I found this incredible wire ornament.

I am high-key obsessed with this, and am pretty sure M makes them herself. I was going to turn it into a tree ornament with a bit of ribbon, but I think I’m actually going to hang it up over my desk so I can admire it alltimes.

So many, many thanks to M for my amazing gifts. And thanks to Alberta Equest for organizing!

speedy, meet slowy

My next visit to Speedy wasn’t for a month after the Sheryl clinic, when we headed back to MIL’s place for Christmas. I was only able to get three rides in over nine days, since California was getting a much-needed dump of precipitation.

MIL and HJ friend had decided the best way for me to spend those rides would be to keep working on gymnastics with Speedy. So we set up several poles so we would have the option to trot through, canter through, and then raise them to bounce through. And the next three days we basically just went back and forth over those poles, after a quick warmup.

huge fan of this trot

The first day we kept it to a trot, going back and forth over placing poles on either side of an itty bitty vertical. The goal was to keep it slow and easy, and help Speedy find a steady pace to the fences and a quiet arc over the fence. I was instructed to stay out of his way, grab mane or neck strap, and use just verbal cues to slow the tempo as needed. The only things I cared about were that he went (relatively) straight and woah-ed when asked. Other than that, he got lots of praise and pats as he went, and I talked to him a lot to keep both me and him breathing. Unsurprisingly, Speedy was great.

On day two, we advanced to two raised poles about 9′ apart. A bit on the short side, but MIL was really trying to get Speedy to think about compressing his stride and body, and we were still trotting in. Speedy came out like we were picking right up where we had left off the day before. He trotted right through the trot poles like he knew where his feet went, and didn’t try to pull me down to the grid as fast as he could. No footage from day 2 since my phone ran out of space, but I left the ride feeling really positive again.

day one: a skosh flat, extremely cute

Day three, we tackled the grid at a canter. We bumped the pole risers up as high as they went and trotted back and forth a few times. Once we were trotting through nice and calmly, I asked Speedy to canter in. We kept it on a short approach so I didn’t have to negotiate the corner, and I kept up with the verbal cues to keep Speedy slow and steady.

day three: slowy mode activated

I had new homework on day three — grabbing mane. Like, really grabbing mane. Way up there. WAAAY UP THERE. Like basically HJ friend wanted me to grab Speedy’s tiny adorable little ears and use those to balance on instead of his mouth. Okay so maybe not that far up, but really, grab mane Nicole. I maybe grabbed mane.

Speedy was super at the canter also. He managed to slow it down and stay steady to the fences. It still wasn’t perfect with the distances and I had a hard time riding to the placing pole, but HJ friend and MIL assured me that wasn’t the point. The point was to get a steady canter and let Speedy figure out the rest. So that’s what I (tried to) did.

day one: what are you doing with your arms nicole dear god

Over all three days, Speedy spent a lot of time processing in between each go, dropping his head almost to the ground and chomping on the bit. I was worried that we were making him anxious, but at the same time I didn’t think there was much I could do about it at that point. I figured it was the change in how he was expected to go that was stressing him out, but being able to jump from a slower pace and a steadier tempo is necessary, and shouldn’t be stressful overall. Now that I know him a bit better, I know that he probably was stressed out, but the chomping and head dropping were also signs of Speedy thinking about the new information.

One of the best moments of the “week” was when MIL accidentally reset the placement poles to the bounce waaaaay too tight. She rolled them out to 6′ (I think we had rolled them in to see how he would do without them, but liked him better with the placement poles) and it wasn’t until I hit the first pole trotting in that I realized they were way tight. I grabbed mane and yelled “too close! way too close!” Speedy just compressed his stride even more and carefully pinged through. It was a huge accomplishment for him, since I’m pretty sure even just three rides earlier he would have been inclined to rocket through the bounce as an oxer, or take it all down in a rush.

It promptly started pouring in the afternoon of day three, so there were more rides over Christmas. But Speedy and I spent some quality time together cleaning his paddock, taste testing candy-cane peeps, and playing with balance pads. I am well on my way to an unhealthy obsession with this hony.

Speedy learns to speak cowboy

Back in 2018 I had my first ever cowboy/horsemanship/ground work lesson, and it was pretty mindblowing. I wanted to do more, but then Murray retired, Cowboy Dave retired, and every time another awesome ground work clinician would come to our barn I would be out of town. It was le crap.

Luckily, MIL started working with a ground work trainer this year last year. It was a bit of a surprise to me, since MIL has not embraced the ways of cowboy training before. But she picked it up this year and has been really happy with how both her 3 year old and her I-2 mare have responded. Obviously when MIL let me know that Sheryl (Lynde), the clinician, would be coming while Speedy was at her house, I made a point of coming down for the clinic.

[Now we all get into the waybackmachine to November 2021 for the clinic!]

Since Speedy was newest to this type of work among the clinic horses, Sheryl used him as a demo horse so she could start teaching him the basics. She started by asking him to match her energy, specifically bringing his energy up. Speedy is super easy to get along with because he’s a low energy, go-along-to-get-along kinda guy…. who can be kinda tuned out to you at times. So when Sheryl asked him to start yielding his haunches to her, he responded very confidently with absolutely nothing. Sheryl had to really get the end of the lead rope swinging before Speedy started moving away from the pressure. And Speedy was…. offended.

actually a picture from our second Sheryl session, but representative of Speedy’s feelings nonetheless

Sheryl worked with Speedy alone for quite a while. She did an amazing job of narrating while she went. She told us exactly what she was looking for and rewarding, and the body language she was using to get it. Sheryl wanted to get to the point where she could reward Speedy for “thinking the right thing” when she asked lightly enough. Speedy, on the other hand, wasn’t ready to start actually thinking yet. Sheryl would ask lightly, Speedy would ignore, Sheryl would slowly increase her ask and then Speedy would LEAP AWAY FROM HER BECAUSE THIS IS AN INDIGNITY.

Really, there were moments when I was watching my expensive, imported, sensible horse leap through the air with just a leeeetle too much resemblance to a certain other horse we know.

you know who we are talking about, Murray

In the process of helping Speedy learn what she meant, Sheryl discovered that he’s actually quite a sensitive fellow (which MIL and I had been learning under saddle also). He just has a bit of a “crust” of zoned-out over the top of that sensitivity. A bit part of tapping in to the sensitivity is not letting him get crusty — keep his energy good (matching mine) and make the asks really clear. Sheryl emphasized several times that for any horse, but especially horses like Speedy, you have to have a really clear idea of what you’re asking for and clearly reward for that.

Then it was my turn to learn Sheryl’s dialect of Cowboy. This was hard for me because a) I’m super happy to let any horse take space from me, especially cute little honies and b) there was a lot of rope to handle. We focused on the basics for my part: ask him to yield his shoulder, ask him to yield his hind quarters, keep and establish your bubble of space. What really clicked for me was planning ahead and thinking of the small increment of behavior that I could reward when Speedy gave it to me.

thinking

After the other horse-owner pairs worked with Sheryl, she took Speedy into the round pen to begin his education in liberty work. I’ve watched a lot of Elisa Wallace’s videos on liberty and round pen work with her mustangs and I have always been fascinated. But I’ve never tried it, in part due to lack of access to a round pen, but also because I really have no idea what she is doing. I can see what she’s rewarding when she narrates over the videos, but I couldn’t see what she was doing to get it. And I had no intention of running any horses off their feet in an attempt to do the same. So once again, I was super excited to have Sheryl to get Speedy started so I could continue the work.

Getting the hang of the liberty work was another slog for Speedy. In this case not because he was crusty, but because he was not bringing his attention to Sheryl and instead turned to the outside or focused to the outside of the round pen. Obviously, part of this struggle was that Speedy didn’t understand that this was a game where he had to pay attention to Sheryl. I think that was a big part of the value of the exercise — Speedy should understand that when we’re in the round pen together (or the arena, or the cross ties, or the trailer, or, or, or) that he should be paying attention to me. Not because I’m going to ask him to work all the time, or because I need him to be 100% laser focused on what we’re doing. But because I might need his attention, and I shouldn’t have to beg him to get it.

finally taking a minute to consider Sheryl

Sheryl worked mostly on getting Speedy to bring his attention to the inside of the round pen and towards her, when she invited him. What I really liked about her approach is that it was clear it wasn’t about running him off his feet or chasing him until he tired. She just made the parameters clear and gave him a lot of opportunities to give her the right answer. Don’t want to turn in? That’s fine, but then you do have to move off a little. If you choose to canter, that’s on you friend. Half a circle later — how about an inside turn? Still choosing the outside turn? That’s not what I asked for so let’s go back that original direction and try again. That was a huge turning point in my understanding of the liberty work. The beginning of the work was definitely ugly with Speedy. But just like any other good training method, Sheryl gave him lots of opportunities to give her the right answer. And she successively rewarded righter and righter answers so there was a clear path for him to move toward the behavior she wanted.

It was a super jam packed day for both me and hony, as we then tacked up for an under-saddle session with Sheryl as well. But the big learning moments for him were on the ground. Sheryl applied those under saddle, chipping away at the crust of nyeh to get Speedy to find a better shape and match her energy underneath her. For me, it was super educational to watch Sheryl work through the beginning of the training process with Speedy, helping him find the way to respond to her requests, and then learning how I could make those answers clear to him also. And also to get a deeper, more thorough understanding of the whys and hows of round pen work.

I didn’t get much of a chance to practice after Sheryl’s visit, since I had to go home and Speedy hadn’t moved up to me yet yet. But MIL continued to practice with him, and we got a chance to see Sheryl again on January 5th.

to the basics!!

I shan’t say back to basics since a) Speedy is in a pretty deep basics bootcamp with MIL right now but also b) we obviously never left the basics, right?

trot poles are very basic

I’ve seen a whole bunch of new horses come into TrJ’s program this year through a bizarre convergence of all the people looking for a new horse. And a funny thing I noticed with all of them was a massive backslide in their training after they arrived at the new barn. I even joked about it to one of my friends, “isn’t it funny how all these horses arrived and just…. forget how to horse?” One promptly went lame, one started bolting, one started voicing (and kicking) his opinions, one stopped going forward at all.

Most of the “new horse!”s I’d met in the past had a honeymoon period where they stayed pretty perfect for a while, then their behavior started to unravel. I always assumed it was the old trainer’s buttprint finally coming off them, and the horse realizing that they really did live in this new place with all these new rules. So it kinda cracked me up that all those horses at TrJs had that happen so much faster. I think it was actually because of TrJ though — she has a knack of finding those holes in the basics and shoving her thumb right in ouchiest one.

solution focused, that’s my boy. (and yeah, lunging him through here wasn’t a great choice to start with, but I was at the mercy of a DQ and a retired HJ rider, I just did what I was told)

We threw Speedy into a totally different program when he got here, with a pretty big focus on basics, so I expected a fair bit of embracing the suck for our first few months together. Some part of my brain still thought, though, that even though we are pretty fundamentally changing the way this horse goes, I’d just be able to bop him around 2’6″-3′ fences the whole time — even if I had to ride him “the old way”. Oh I knew — imagine dismissive hand flapping here — that there was a lot of grid work in our future as we helped him realize a new shape all the way to the base of the fences. But I figured we’d start with little Xs and work our way up to a fun, bigger oxer that would make me blush and swoon and fan my hands at my face all the while quietly demurring “Oh, it’s all him really, Speedy is just so talented.”

I did not figure that we’d trot him through a set of canter poles and he would go “what in the actual fuck is this shit on the ground I’m going to stomp on it”.

speedy stomp?

And then do a variety of different interpretive dances over the poles.

boing boing motherfucker

To his credit, he did actually try to solve the problem, and he didn’t panic. Unfortunately, his range of solutions ranged from “canter bigger” to “go faster” at various points before or during the poles. We set them on a 12 foot stride, and what Speedy really needed to do was compress his stride a bit to get through them properly, an absolutely bizarre feeling for someone who came from a horse with a preferred canter size of about 3.7 feet.

Speedy would go from calmly walking to pulling to the poles pretty quickly as we approached them, and my half halts were utterly ineffective. The next day, we got serious about the half halt (something we got to explore more with our groundwork trainer also!) and threw a halt in before the poles. The first time I tried that I got nothing, and just hauled on Speedy’s mouth through the grid. Next time around MIL reminded me to actually get the halt. Make it ugly if I needed to, but get the halt and then release right away.

it is the best canter

We clobbered our way through the little bounces a few times until Speedy and I found a much more settled canter on a circle. It is tempting to let him just pound down to the fences in whatever size canter he wants, because it’s a very pleasant canter at all the sizes. I also really didn’t have enough space, or spatial awareness, to help manage his canter to the placement pole so we could get a smoother ride through the grid. That will come, though!

bounce bounce bounce

Speedy definitely has some basics-shaped holes we need to fill in. And to be abundantly clear, I don’t think this reflects poorly on his trainers at all. They — one of them being a 16 year old — took a green-broke 4 year old and got him to Bundeschampionate finals as a 5 year old less than 18 months later without frying his brain, destroying his personality, or shutting down those amazing gaits of his. Speedy also deserves some of the credit. He’s a pretty reasonable and biddable fellow and is naturally quite clever and careful over the fences. So it was probably easy to skip some of those basics in favor of moving him up to the more impressive heights that were most likely to sell him. And some of those holes are definitely just “I don’t speak American!” issues, as well.

So yeah. There’s going to be some hanging around in basics-land for a while. I forsee alot of grids in our future. I am soooo excited about how super he’s going to be over the fences after we shore up this basics foundation a bit!

it’s the brain for me

I’m almost caught up on late-October Speedy adventures, just in time for another visit! Later this week I will head down for a groundwork/horsemanship clinic that was supposed to happen last month, but got rained out. I’m very excited we managed to reschedule while Speedy would be with my MIL though, as her groundwork person is fabulous, and I’ve had trouble scheduling up here as all our good cowboys are retiring which has left the other horsemanship trainers extra busy.

On Wednesday of my first week with Speedy (October 27th), we planned to haul out to a local HJ trainer/friend’s place for a jump lesson. By the time Wednesday morning rolled around I was not so sure a jump lesson was a good idea. I’d trotted and cantered Speedy over a pole to test out a new jump saddle, and upon seeing the pole he promptly inverted and stopped moving over his topline. Which was, honestly, very understandable. We had done nothing but focus very specifically on changing the shape of his body and the muscles he uses to get around in a very controlled and specific way — that is, large circles and short straight lines — and then just four days into that new paradigm we threw a pole at him and he said “the only way I know how to address this problem is the way I’ve always addressed this problem”.

so cute to the fences

I know that better movement patterns over fences will come with time and practice. And I figured that at the very least, the jump lesson would give me a chance to focus on my jump position a bit and there would be little harm done to Speedy’s progress in the long run if we let him run around inverted for one day.

He was a dream to haul. Got right in the trailer and rode backwards in the slant (MIL got a wild hair to see if that would be a viable option in her trailer), then got out quietly when we arrived. Which is exactly what Speedy did when I saw him at the gel├źndeplatz at Luhm├╝hlen — got off the trailer, looked around quietly, and then looked for a snack. His trainer specifically said to me “this is what he is like everywhere”, but I kinda didn’t believe him. I was wrong.

Right next to the arena, a cell network had staff servicing their cell tower with a crane lift and dues in harnesses. Speedy looked at them for about two seconds, decided they were not food and therefore were not worth attention, and ignored them for the rest of the ride.

The lesson itself was not great. HJ trainer — and I really feel like she did this in the best-intentioned way — recognized immediately that Speedy’s weakness is not moving over his topline and into the contact, and set about trying to help me fix that. Unfortunately, she took a completely different tack than MIL has been taking, but which also happened to be different from the way Speedy’s old trainer coached me to ride him. Since Speedy’s natural inclination is not just to come over his topline and drop into the connection, I didn’t get many opportunities to “follow and reward” him like she wanted me to. And since I’m not used to using my body the way HJ trainer was instructing, I couldn’t take as many of those opportunities as Speedy was offering me. It was…. not the best.

Speedy never stopped trying once, though. He did suggest maybe we could walk more (we could have, it was a pretty intense lesson) and he did break from the canter to the trot as I flailed around in the borrowed saddle trying to corral different parts of him. I hit him unnecessarily hard with the end of the reins at one point (a combo accident-frustration flail), I pony club kicked him when he didn’t move forward off my leg, I stuck my spur into him when instructed. And at no point did he offer to bolt, buck, or take the completely valid excuse of those construction guys and spook.

so cute over the fences!

The next day I made a point of taking extra time to fuss over Speedy while grooming him and made our ride very short and very rewarding (there were cookies). I could tell he was a titch unhappy to be getting tacked up again (chewing on the cross ties more than usual) and he didn’t offer me any prosocial grooming behaviors, but he was perfectly polite in the cross ties and quiet and responsive under saddle. Murray would have been running away from me during saddling or bridling for sure after that lesson (I used a bit he didn’t like for one ride and he refused to be bridled for two days afterward). I know my standards for pony behavior are kinda low, but this horse just has the best brain and attitude and gatdamn I am so glad I bought him.

The other thing this lesson reminded me of is that I really, really need to trust my gut and stick up for my horse when I think he needs it. I protected Murray by being very careful of the training/lesson/clinic situations I put him in, because he had a very special pair of very special kid gloves he needed to be very specially handled with, and I always made sure that new trainers or clinicians knew that he was one of those. I didn’t say anything during this lesson because of some slightly complicated social elements, but there were times in the lesson when I thought I should, and upon more reflection, I know I should have. I’m a fairly good communicator; I should be able to explain pretty clearly why I think something isn’t working for me and my horse. If a trainer can’t explain why this particular lesson is important enough to keep chipping away at or pivot and offer me something that I think is better for the horse, then I have to remember that I’m just fine walking away from that lesson.

Luckily, I don’t think there’s any permanent damage done. I think there’s a pretty solid path back to Speedy’s heart with treats, at least right now. It was worth my time to know how good Speedy will be off property and with shenanigans going on around him, and to remember that I do know a thing or two about horses that is worth piping up about.