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√ęndeplatz at Luhm√ľhlen — 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.

unlocking pony

One super bummer thing about my new barn sitch is that even though there are a fair few people around, and it’s a pretty vibrant and friendly place, there aren’t a lot of people loitering around in the arena who could be hijacked into taking video or pictures for me. Seriously, I think there have been two days (of probably 30 rides since I started leasing the pony?) that there has been a free human in the arena. And the other part is that I’m just not quiiite comfortable enough to yell out and ask for video.

WHYYYY GREYY

Proof or not, we’ve been making some major progress unlocking the pony. Even just five-ish weeks ago Sammy and I were really struggling to get on the same page about dressage. During one of our rides, he tried zipping off in a little fastfast trot as an evasion when I put my leg on. I was thrown off balance the first time, and even though I shut the second zip down pretty quickly, I felt him try it at least three more times during the ride for seemingly no reason (I mean, there’s always a reason). It was one of the most annoyed response I’ve gotten from him. Ignoring me? Sure. Wrong response because he’s unbalance or not sure what I’m asking? Totally reasonably. Annoyed? Not really a thing he did.

But we’ve gotten more and more in sync since then, and it feels like our progress has been taking big strides lately! Now that we have the pony mostly ahead of the leg and working with multiple different gears within each gait, TrJ has me trying to get him to unlock his left side and stop leaning on it quite so much. At first I was confused by this, because I feel like whenever I take a hold of the left rein, Sammy falls hard to the right and so of course I grab the right rein in response (it’s the best response, obviously). I thought I was feeling a right-side problem, particularly with getting his right hind under his body. And maybe I was, but cranking his neck around to the right was not the solution there.


a cleaner pony from a drier day – showing off the vast expanse of his chubby back

In my most recent lesson, TrJ had me focus on making sure my left and right reins were the same length and not letting Sammy¬†hang on that left rein. Part of the problem is that the pony gets “locked up” on the left side of his body — as if instead of being toned but pliable muscle that moves in both directions, it is a bowed 2-by-4 that is held in place by a short rein, but isn’t fixed by a longer or following rein. Hmm. It’s a bit hard to explain in words. Like the left rein pulls the pony into a slight C-shape to the left that he then leans on and relies on in order to maintain that C. At the same time, he leans on the left corner of his mouth on the bit, and seems to ignore the pressure there. So if you drop the rein, he falls over his right shoulder but doesn’t soften, and if you keep holding the rein he’s happy to lean on you for quite a while. Like, maybe forever.

TrJ had me tackle the problem in a more fiddly-way than I would really like, but explained that she wanted us to try this just as a short term solution. Sammy is pretty set in his ways, and we don’t want to fiddlefuck around in the future. But for right now, it’s one of the only ways we can communicate to him that we want something¬†different than what he’s used to delivering. So there’s a bit more grabbing of the left rein and massaging with my fingers than I’d like to do (not least of all because I literally can’t manage to keep track of all those things I’m “supposed” to be doing when instructed to ride that way), but every ride we work toward a quieter, softer way to ask Sammy keep moving through both sides of his body and not brace through his left side.

so very not-tall

As much as I don’t want or really like using that tool, it¬†is another tool in my kit. And I can totally see why some people become reliant on fiddling — it does get some immediate results. Plus, just because it’s not my preferred tool, doesn’t mean I can’t learn to use it¬†well, or apply some Academic Horse Training-type principles to it. It fits into a learning paradigm along with many other training tools, and I should remember that.

get with the program, human

It seems like every time I scheduled my first lesson with Trainer J, Murray found some way to sabotage it. First, by being sore as hell after standing in a stall for 3 weeks. Next, by being insanely rude to the vet and requiring cowboy lessons first. Most recently, by freaking out when the new farrier tried to burn his feet during hot shoeing, and becoming pretty sore up front.


So clvr. So smrt.

The farrier and I made a plan to get Murray more on board with the idea of hot shoeing (slow, measured exposure) and TrJ and figured we’d just move forward with the lesson as best we could. It was short, but very informative.

I expected my first lesson with TrJ to start like a clinic. Tell me about your riding, tell me about your horse, tell me about your goals.  It did not start like this.

TrJ came in with a plan for me. I was trotting Murray around on a long rein to loosen him up a bit, and TrJ had me come back to a walk. She wanted to give Murray a bit more of a chance to stretch out, and make some position modifications to me that would help us. She said she has noticed that I tend to let my heels get out behind me — absolutely true, and something I haven’t actively thought about fixing in a while. She also pointed out my atrocious habit of shoving Murray in the walk with my seat. These were the first two things TrJ wanted me to fix.

So I dropped my stirrups, and thought specifically about NOT shoving. Unfortunately, this kinda ends up making me stiffen my seat, it doesn’t give me a following seat. TrJ also told me to sit back on my pockets more, and had me lift my knees up over the flaps and sit on one of my hands to feel my seat bones. She told me to bring my legs back down and really relax them around the saddle, letting gravity pull my heels down and not ramming my toes up. This struck me as a little bit counter to the “sucking yourself into the saddle” idea of biomechanics, which made me a titch uncomfortable, but I went with it.


because biomechanics are my lord and savior, clearly

We worked at the walk for a long time. When my seat got too shove-y, TrJ had me drop my chin to my chest, which had the side effect of stilling my shoving muscles and really letting my seat follow. Whenever I started shoving again, I could drop my chin down and rediscover the feeling of following, and then lift my head up to, you know, look where I was going again.

I was definitely a little skeptical about this approach to my riding. Like, I know that shoving with my seat is a really bad habit and I shouldn’t do it. But I was not sure that starting¬†there was really the best approach to creating a dressage horse who is more confident in the connection.

But lo, when I stopped shoving with my seat, Murray started taking bigger (albeit slower) steps and stretching down over his topline. At one point, he even jostled the bit lightly in my hands with his tongue — not in a grabby, rooting kind of way. But with his head on the vertical, just playing with the bit in my hands.¬†That was a cool new feeling.


I love magical connection feelings

As part of not shoving with my seat, TrJ told me to relax my lower back, and feel like someone was pulling my torso back by the belt and the bra strap. I should have clarified during the lesson, but it didn’t seem like she wanted me¬†leaning back. She wanted me resisting that feeling, I think. Regardless, when I stacked my torso up vertically (I have a habit of letting my cereal box fall forward from my hip) and became shorter and wider, TrJ was happy with the attempt.

Doing all of these things — relaxing my legs, following instead of shoving with my seat, “relaxing” aka squashing down my lower back, and keeping my torso vertical really¬†made my seat bones connect with the saddle more. It felt like each seat bone had more surface area on the saddle, maybe double or more than what they had at the start of the lesson.

And all of this was accomplished just at the WALK.


fave gait. we soooooo good at it.

I had some strange-not-amazing feelings about this lesson afterward. It was quite different from what I have worked on with a biomechanics-focused instructor (Alexis) and from the path I’d been taking to improve Murray’s connection and throughness this last summer. And, I will admit it, I’ve spent lots of time on the ground at this barn watching TrJ’s riders, and they aren’t necessarily bear-down riders. I’m very comfortable with the biomechanics stuff, and I liked the progress Murray and I made this year. All of these things, plus the fact that TrJ didn’t ask me about what I wanted felt¬†weird.

After more thought, I realized that it just feels weird because it’s different. TrJ has a program, and lots of successful riders in that program. She watches people — she really¬†watches¬†them — even when they aren’t in lessons. TrJ also has a very specific way she wants people to ride, and she has a method of building those riders to get to that way.

Murray’s feet seem to feel better, and he’s back to his usual level of out-of-shape-not-using-himself-not-terribly-cute-mover-ness. I’m looking forward to making more lessons happen, and refusing to accept Murray’s attempts at sabotage.

angry pretzel

Poor Murray was very disturbed to be taken out of retirement¬†once again and put back to work. When I got to his stall on Tuesday he was like “who are you? stranger danger. don’t touch me. go away.”

no touching. also, i don’t eat hay any more only GREEN PASTURE GRASS aka crack. also go away.

He settled reasonably well under saddle and was forward and happy trotting around on a loose rein for warm up. Once we got back to our pre-hiatus homework was when the objections came out.

Both Kate and my trainer recently emphasized the importance of correct walk-trot transitions recently. I am utterly awful about transitions, especially walk-trot transitions. I’m not strict about them, and Murray doesn’t like them. So he does weird shit when I ask for them, especially when I insist on some semblance of throughness during them, and I back off and go back to accepting crappy transitions.

I’m trying to insist on correctness in those transitions from the very start of the ride, and not have to work up to it quite so much. And that’s when the angry pretzel came out.


this pretzel

When I put my leg on without giving away the connection (okay fine I’ll be honest, throwing it away) Murray responds by

  1. moving his haunches over
  2. going sideways
  3. slowing down (are you freaking kidding me??!)
  4. going sideways the other way
  5. making his steps even tinier
  6. stopping all together

It’s kindof a “pick any and all that apply” kind of situation. And Murray gets so tense and balled up that it feels like all of his fascial lines are tangled up inside his body and there’s no clear path let him put one foot in front of the other. It’s not a great feeling. Can’t feel great for Murray, either.

I unilaterally decided that we wouldn’t quit until Murray was back on board with the leg == go part of the equation.


AWW LOOK WHO IS LEARNING ABOUT CONNECTION

It took a while. Like, a real while. Murray used a bunch of environmental factors as excuses in addition to his standard angry pretzel moves. The wind rustled some trees outside the arena so he farted and bucked and squealed and ran away. Trainer was lunging a baby horse and the whip cracked and so he scooted and inverted.

And I just tried to not give up on asking correctly. Do you know how many ways there are for me to enable Murray’s crappy trot transitions? LIKE MILLIONS. THERE ARE MILLIONS OF WAYS FOR ME TO FORK THOSE UP.

So it was all “keep sitting up” and “don’t give up the leg until you get the right response” and “keep your fingers closed” and “don’t let your core get floppy” and then, and then, and then.

chipping away at sucking less

But you know what the cool thing about being incredibly, insanely, pedantically consistent in how you ask your horse to do transitions? The transitions get a lot better. Noticeably so, in even a couple of days.

On Wednesday, there was only one angry pretzel sideways moment. By Friday, there was no angry pretzel. Just a very slightly evasive pony with average, mostly-forward movement.

Of course, I slipped back into some old bad habits in the process (pitching forward, letting my legs slide back). So now I have another thing to add to my list of what not to do while trying to nail these transitions.

operationalize

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

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

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

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

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

not happy, nicole!

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

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

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

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

evasions: we have them

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

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

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

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

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

baby horse perspectives

Riding has been a bit off and on lately.¬† The smoke from the Napa fires sometimes gets pushed south into the Bay Area, and we have great air — so riding is on the table.¬† Sometimes it creeps over the hills and fills the valley, and to help preserve everyone’s lungs I cancel my rides.¬† I don’t think anyone minds the schedule.¬† Especially since there’s newborn puppies to stare at in my barn manager’s house!

I also took Tuesday off and volunteered at Napa Valley Horsemen’s Arena.¬† It was one of the evacuation centers for livestock during the fires, and they are happily starting to empty stalls.¬† Stalls West must have hustled up and dropped stalls off really quickly, because I recognized stickers from Camelot on their temporary barns.¬† The operation ran really smoothly.¬† As one might expect, the morning was the very busiest, as we took temperatures on every horse (with some not-totally-reliable ten second thermometers) and mucked and fed.¬† There was a big lull around 1 when we were done with all the urgent stuff, and so the veterinarian directed us to turn a couple of big mares (who had been stuck for a few weeks in mare motels) out into a free arena.¬† The girls trotted around a bit, rolled about ten times, and were not unhappy to come back in.¬† We considered turning out other horses, but as some were very hard to catch even¬†in a mare motel, and I had no idea about the soundness or restrictions on any of them, without direct vet supervision I was uncomfortable with that plan.

We also helped load up a bunch of horses and a couple of pet steers to go back home, which was awesome for them.¬† Lots of people have been released to go home, and while a shocking number of structures were lost, because of the shape and size of the fires, many who were evacuated were spared.¬† The facility is switching over now to keep their sights on long-term care of the animals who won’t be able to go home — for perhaps months or years, as the infrastructure (wooden bridges or electrical/gas conduit) is rebuilt.¬† It’s going to be a long haul for some people, and I’m so glad that the community stepped up to help.¬† I’m really glad that we’re seeing the end of these fires too.

On Wednesday I got back at it, and had a lesson on the mom-bod mare (now MBM) with B, as I’ve not been able to get her to canter left for… a week or so.¬† Oddly enough, B told me that she had never gotten MBM to canter left, only right.¬† So I’d somehow unlocked¬†something in there in previous rides, only to lose it.

MBM was a little up and not listening to my seat as much as she usually does, but it was fine.¬† B had me slow my post way down and I half¬† halted through my thighs, and we got back in tune.¬† She is definitely one of those horses who gets tense, braces, and rushes when she’s confused or off-balance.¬† Thinking about tempo and getting her comfortable with moving her body in different ways is going to be key here.¬† But I was very pleased to feel that her steering was vastly improved from my last ride, where we fought about turning left at the wall for a solid ten minutes.

throwback to when Murray couldn’t turn left either

We tried a couple of canter transitions and I only managed to get the right lead, so B suggested pushing MBM’s haunches in a little.¬† That was the trick, and we got the left lead on the first try.¬† The super neat thing here is that I’m now experienced and subtle enough that I could push her haunches over just a little, even with the mare feeling a little bracey and rushed, and not over-do it or get weird about it.¬† MBM immediately locked herself into “race mode canter” and whizzed around the arena while I tried to get her back underneath me and listening.¬† I could feel myself bracing in my heels and letting them get ahead of me while I tried to half halt with my hands and actively fought that position, but it’s hard when letting the reins loosen and getting your leg back under you just results in feeling like you’re going too fast¬†and have no hands on the wheel.

The trick was turning MBM into a 20 meter circle so she didn’t have the long sides to use as an excuse.¬† B had me half halt hard with the outside rein and keep my legs on, then soften with both reins.¬† We actually managed a full circle in a pretty quality canter, which was awesome.¬† So the next step here is going to be transitioning from this freight-train canter into a controlled canter more quickly.¬† This is the place where sometimes her former brood-mare-y-ness bugs me: I feel like MBM is bossing me around, like “I’m the mom, I tell you what to do.”¬† And I’m like “no, I’M THE MO– I mean, I’m the¬†leader, I tell you what to do!”


murray antics for everyone’s appreciation

Right canter was a similar struggled, but I was once again really happy to feel that MBM had taken some of our previous fights to heart and was getting off my inside leg much more promptly.¬† B cautioned me not to let her bait me into pulling the right rein.¬† She pops her head and neck to the left in a counter-flex, so in response I flex her back right.¬† But once we flex to the right, she falls in to the right, and does so¬†hard (like, in a few of our previous rides I thought we were going to crash into a jump standard).¬†¬†So I had to slow the tempo down, flex right, then keep her off my right leg, and weight my left stirrup a little so she didn’t feel quite so inclined to just motorcycle to the inside.

It was a great lesson to confirm my instincts and feel the progress we are making.¬† Along with MBM’s slimming down and muscling up, B said she can see her gaits improving and extending, and that the mare’s canter has gone from pace-y to more three-beat.¬† Which is fantastic!

After my lesson, I tried to hand walk Murray for an hour and gave up around 40 minutes. HAND WALKING IS SO BORING OMG.¬† But I’m trying to get him out a bit more to help push some of the interstitial fluid out from around the leg hole.¬† He’s becoming more and more of a pill about bandage changes, so my goal is to tire him out a bit with hand walking (which he finds both tiring and boring) before I change it today, and see if he can’t be more reasonable for it.¬† The hole is healing it’s just doing so at it’s own absurdly slow pace.

But my vet and all my vet and tech friends assure me that it will heal. As they always seem to do.  Even if it does take forever.

want to get back to this please

 

pony jump big big

I wanted to take my first jump lesson since Murray’s hock injections easy(ish), but also prep for my Novice debut in ten days. ¬†I told B that we should warm up, then start at Novice height and just build up to the course. ¬†My goal for this was manifold.

  1. Avoid jumping every fence 3-6 times at varying heights
  2. Start out at the New Scary Height (2’11” in case you’re wondering)
  3. Ride “easy” lines to prevent stops before they could happen

Importantly, I wanted to focus on my position and see if I could find that magic “spot” again over fences, as well as keep riding correctly and insisting on correctness from Murray. ¬†Pertinent to the second point, Alli¬†said something to me that has totally revolutionized my rides this week: she realized that when she feels Dino get light in the bridle, she pulls to get the feel back, instead of kicking the pony up to it. ¬†I realized that this is exactly what I do, especially when jumping:¬†I feel Murray duck behind the bridle, and I take up more reins to get a feel of his mouth back, instead of¬†pushing¬†him forward to the contact and the fences.

Um. Duh.

we have walked over this tarp ditch every day for the last two weeks.
murray still stopped when we first cantered it today.
sigh

So for my last two rides I’ve been thinking about squeezing Murray forward into the bridle when I feel him duck behind it. ¬†Not kicking or bullying, and definitely not pulling, but just squeeeezing him with my whole leg until I feel him come back into my hands. ¬†It worked and got us a really fabulous trot toward the end of my (short) ride yesterday, and I thought “if I could trot like this up to a vertical, it would be pretty fucking awesome”.

Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to achieve the beautiful trot up to our warmup fences, but I kept squeezing and pushing and Murray softened to the idea. ¬†It’s not his favourite idea — being told what to do OR being told to move forward into contact — but it’s probably the least offensive way I’ve ever asked him for this, so ¬†he was willing to accept a bit.

We started with a simple, long bending line of vertical to oxer. ¬†When B was setting the oxer I remember thinking “gee that’s big! Murray doesn’t even barely have to put his nose down to touch it.” ¬†That’s what you get when you don’t jump ¬†height for a while. ¬†I felt Murray hesitate as we approached the green oxer, that kind of shrinking-stride check in he sometimes does. ¬†I knew it was an opportunity for him to sit down and stop if he chose, so I squeezed him into the bridle — not too aggressively — and he went right over. ¬†I was very, very proud.

good pony

Next up, we built up the combination. The kids had put together a barrels-two strides-quarter round skinny-one stride-quarter round skinny combo across the long diagonal. ¬†I didn’t want to fight with Murray about it, so B had me come in to the barrels like I was on a big circle and just turn left before we got to the skinny. ¬†Murray actually locked on to the skinnies in the combination and I felt him pull me to the right. ¬†But I was committed to going left, so I made the turn happen. ¬†Our next go through he eagerly jumped through the whole combo, though we did jam three in the two stride.


we got the striding later though!

Our attempts at the barrel line were not without fuckups, however. ¬†After one successful go through, I leaned as we approached the barrels in a backward attempt to push Murray toward the fence and encourage him to get the striding. ¬†Murray was like “girl, you¬†cannot lay on my neck like that” and stopped. ¬†I, of course, lay all over his neck. ¬†Like, straight lesson kid laying on the neck posture. ¬†(I would have a picture, but google photos won’t give me the high resolution version of my video!!!!)

shenanigans

Next we came in to the oxer to liverpool. ¬†Murray and I have walked over the liverpool every. single. day. and yet we still had trouble with it during the lesson. ¬†The first time I was coming off of some shenanigans so Murray was flustered and disorganized and I tried to commit to the oxer anyway. ¬†It was the wrong choice. ¬†The next go through Murray went over the oxer and then spooked hard at the liverpool. ¬†I was like “Nope! Nope! You have to do it, Murray!” and pointed him back at the liverpool. ¬†After a moment’s thought he jumped over. ¬†Subsequent attempts were slightly less awkward.

The last few fences on course included a series of rollbacks that were a little more challenging upon execution than I expected!  We overshot the turn both times we took it, but Murray was game to take the second fence at an angle, which made up for my poor navigation.

In our last course, Murray arrived at the big green oxer on a fantastic open stride and at just a hint of a long spot. ¬†I squeezed him a few strides out as encouragement, and he launched himself over — I mean, really launched himself. ¬†Sadly B was very far from the oxer at the time, but we FLEW!

The last course was really fantastic — we made all the strides, didn’t get any awkward spots because we had such a good quality canter, and Murray was on fire! ¬†Seriously, I could not have asked for a better jump lesson before Camelot. ¬†Murray is clearly feeling… something, since his hock injections. ¬†(Though honestly, if shenanigans is what I’m going to get when my pony feels good, I’m willing to take it.) ¬†None of the stops were unreasonable. ¬†All basic rider error, things that I ought to know better than to do/try/flub.

Oh, AND I didn’t crumble because of the height! ¬†Murray and I jump 2’11” not infrequently, but we usually work up to it. ¬†We don’t usually just start at that height. ¬†And I didn’t let it get to me in the first few fences, so after that it immediately felt fine.

it felt so, so, so cool to have Murray pulling to these skinnies in the combo!

We will probably jump once more before Camelot, to keep the confidence up.  But now, I really, really, really need to figure out how to ride Novice B dressage test.

bringing bending back

Our dressage trainer/chiro/all around miracle worker Tina¬†came to the barn last week, which was perfect timing for us. ¬†Coming out of Twin I knew I wanted her insight to improve our relaxation and steadiness, but I also wanted to pick her DVM brain about Murray’s physical health and what I might want to focus on to keep him physically healthy too. ¬†I’m not trying to look for trouble, but if there are medical interventions that will keep the horse happy and healthy and extend his competitive life (and thereby his ability to cart me around XC while I’m still in panic mode), I can probably stand to shell out for it.

We started with a quick body check — nothing stood out to Tina as needing adjustment, so away we went for our lesson. ¬†Tina and I briefly discussed Twin and the hangups we had in dressage there — building tension to canter transitions, lack of steadiness and relaxation in general, very stiff behind — and we got to work. ¬†Murray has been¬†way better in our walk work lately, but we walked for just a touch too long before picking up a trot and he started to get slower and stickier and slower and stickier. ¬†Tina immediately caught me nagging with my seat (again. she catches me EVERY LESSON even though I swear I practice not nagging between our lessons), and when Murray¬†offered up fussiness in the bridle instead of a steady connection she had me put him into a shoulder-in right away.

Murray has always been happy to escape from work laterally, mostly by swinging his haunches away from whatever ails him. ¬†So I have been trying to ride him really straight, so that escaping sideways is less of an option, and energy transfer from his hind end becomes a thing. ¬†And it’s definitely been working, but there are times when it doesn’t work, and I’m not quick enough to catch Murray out before he can pull the reins out of my hands and pop up through his neck. ¬†It’s been a while since I asked Murray for a shoulder in on purpose, and he was definitely a bit reluctant to bend and step under his own body, but it did get him to stop fussing and get to work.

It was a similar story in the trot. ¬†We were steadier, for sure, but we didn’t have a great connection and Murray was avoiding the contact by setting his neck in one position. ¬†Tina had us slide into a shoulder in down the long side as we came around the circle, and then straighten out along the next long side. ¬†The long sides definitely got Murray movin forward with more energy, but he was also fairly downhill, so the key here was to slow down the tempo (but try to keep some of the ground cover) to increase the activity behind. ¬†Which, it turns out, is really, really hard for us on a straight line. ¬†Too easy to just plow downhill and into the ground.

When Murray tried to use our renewed lateral work against me by sliding laterally around the circle instead of bending and tracking forward, Tina had me¬†catch him with the outside rein. ¬†If a little more connection to that outside rein didn’t work, I was to counter bend him until he couldn’t spin his haunches out from my inside leg, and then resume the inside bend when we were straight again. ¬†I really only needed this move in its entirety twice (but then again, we did move on to other activities fairly quickly).

Our canter transitions were a little inverted, though fairly reasonable. ¬†Tina noted that Murray was using his neck to get himself through the transition, which he doesn’t really do on the lunge line in side reins, so had me plant my inside fist on the saddle so that Murray¬†couldn’t pop his neck up to use it through the transition. ¬†It’s an old move of ours,¬†but I’d mostly phased it out in an attempt to avoid being so reliant on the inside rein and increase Murray’s evenness through both reins. ¬†Fortunately, I only needed it for a moment through the transition, and then could get Murray back fairly evenly between both reins. ¬†All of the canter transitions were pretty good, Tina was like “I don’t see what the problem is!” and really, neither did I.

But honestly, I can’t blame Murray for being tense at Twin. ¬†The warmup was a madhouse, I didn’t get to our full pre-flight routine¬†(tack up, ground work, lunge in side reins, get on and¬†ride) because of time. ¬†Tina agreed that with exposure and increased relaxation at home, one would expect that to go away.

The next step in the canter was to get Murray to take some bigger steps and use his body some more, so back came the shallow counter-canter loops and shoulder-in at the canter. ¬†Murray really surprised me here: as soon as I asked for a little bend down the long side in the canter, all this energy came out of¬†nowhere and his canter got huge and marginally uncontrollable. ¬†Suddenly he was right there in my hands and really listening to what I had to ask him.¬†His back was somewhat tense, but he wasn’t disobedient and the quality of his canter got better as we went. ¬†The key was to really slow him down through the short sides, then keep half halting and asking for a slower step through the shoulder in and counter canter. ¬†And even though we haven’t done it in ages, he didn’t try breaking once in the right counter canter.

yes we are sooooooooo good at trot poles

The best work, though, came after our next walk break. ¬†We talked more about the best way to tackle Murray’s stiffness behind, and some ideas of what to do next (more on that later). ¬†Tina said she wanted to see how he did over poles, so she set up five poles at about 4′ apart. ¬†Murray and I do trot poles all the time, so we trotted in and he bumbled his way through them without much help from me — as we often do the first time. ¬†So Tina brought the poles in a little more, to about 3’3″, and had us slow down to tackle them. ¬†The next go through was still a bit messy, but the spacing was right and Murray didn’t hit any or scare himself. ¬†She had us go even slower, and Murray really picked his feet up and even pushed a little from behind. ¬†She pushed for an even slower tempo, and after several more repetitions Murray came around the corner quite slowly and as soon as he saw the poles started picking up his feet, bending his hocks, and pushing more from behind.

It was a lot to think about, and a great lesson in that it addressed a lot of questions and issues without overloading us. ¬†Even though I have been given homework of things I already “know” how to do, the application of them is getting different results — and one would hope I can apply the techniques with a little more subtlety now.

back at it

My 2017 of goal of ride more write more rapidly turned into ride-hardly-ever-write-less. ¬†I definitely got bitten by the saddle fit fear bug for a minute there, worried that putting any saddle that didn’t fit perfectly on Murray’s back would result in severe and permanent physical and psychological damage. ¬†It took me about a week of shopping around for saddles and waiting for the fitter to squeeze me into her very busy schedule for me to decide that fuck it, I could borrow something that fit well enough and/or Murray would be just fine for a few more rides.

So I rode.

jumps01
oh yeah, we actually like to do this…

I had a jump lesson on Tuesday with a friend, and it was definitely the right choice. ¬†One of the barn staff was moving the tractor around trying to clear and dispose of trees that had fallen down during the storms a few weeks ago, and the running tractor and cracking tree limbs and absolute MONSTER that was created when the backhoe picked up tree limbs was just FAR TOO MUCH for both pony brains. ¬†Murray couldn’t go into any corner without violently flinging himself in the other direction (walk, trot, and canter!), and our lessonmate wasn’t faring much better. ¬†Fortunately for us, the backhoe hit a snag about five minutes in to our ride so we all got to settle down.

Murray, of course, was still offended by all the corners. ¬†This made life difficult as we were working on a grid up one of the long sides. ¬†I couldn’t even trot with correct bend around the corner, all I could do was counter-bend Murray and hope that he wouldn’t fling himself too far to the inside. ¬†Every time we would turn to face the grid, Murray would throw all of his pent-up rage regarding the Scary Corner into galloping toward the fences, so we ended up with some…¬†creative use of the poles.

sillypolesyou know it’s bad when even the other horses are laughing at you

I was walking the tightrope of¬†“too much¬†brakes” when I so much as touched Murray’s face with my hands and “no control” if I did nothing. ¬†I guess I could have added leg and really pushed him into my hands, but of course that option didn’t occur to me. ¬†It never does. ¬†(Add leg? Who adds leg. Absurd. That’s totally¬†not¬†always the answer.) ¬†So I just tried to keep the half halts coming with my seat and core,¬†and let the whatever happen.

We built up the bounce and Murray made it happen with some fancy footwork and only a few super awkward moments. ¬†The corners continued to be a bit of a problem — going to or from them — but Murray settled into a pretty consistent and even canter. ¬†Weirdly we struggled to make the strides in odd ways. ¬†Coming down the line straight we would get five, but had no problem getting four on the bending line. ¬†B changed the bounce to a square oxer and vertical one stride apart and Murray never once tried to add in the one stride, but couldn’t help but chip in to the square. ¬†I probably could have put my leg on for a better ride, but I was a little hesitant to ask for more since Murray had already settled into rationality. ¬†I didn’t want to break him, after all.

awks
best form for bounces

I also put in a dressage ride in a borrowed saddle on Thursday, which actually turned out to be very productive.  Nothing groundbreaking, just setting clear expectations and working on the exercises that my many coaches have given me.  But after setting some very clear guidelines (no, you cannot get sticky by the gate and refuse to turn for no reason) and not backing down when Murray offered his standard protest (buck + leap), we put in some good work.

Of course, now I’m so sore I can barely walk, but that’s what I get for not riding for close to two weeks.

nag less, expect more

I had a dressage lesson with our fantastatrainer Tina on Wednesday, and it was aaaaaah-mazing!  I mentioned last week that we are right in the place where I need a lesson to start to get the next set of tools, and I can always count on Tina to help us problem solve.  (Alas, no relevant media exist.  Maybe next week I will get some new video.)

Murray started out feeling pretty honest,¬†though I promptly forgot everything I’ve learned in the last year about keeping my reins an appropriate length, which was unfortunate. ¬†I told Tina that I had been working on being straight and forward and encouraging Murray to take on bigger and more expressive (and correct) gaits, but also keeping him balanced. ¬†Tina honed in on one of my bad habits immediately, nagging Murray with my seat and legs at the walk. ¬†I recently decided to stop babying Murray about walking — he will never get better at walking with contact if we never do it, right?¬†This was a fight several days in a row until the Tina lesson, and Murray had just started to accept going forward+connection. ¬†So of course I was nagging him every single step to get more forward. ¬†Tina had me give him a kick and then sit quietly when he responded correctly.

img_20161129_191637chubby dressage pony

The problem with this (for me) is that I feel like the response to a kick is an inverted spazzy revolt. ¬†But after a few yucky, sticky, gross responses, Murray figured out that kick = forward. ¬†This was the first lesson in the lesson — reward for the right response. Even if it isn’t the exact response I want at this moment, we want to keep Murray thinking in the right direction. ¬†We can finess later (I hope!!).

We moved on to the trot work and Tina encouraged me to get Murray working a little more over his back by getting his neck a little lower.  I have been trying to avoid letting Murray get his neck tooooo low lately, because he can get really on the forehand and downhill.  But his balance actually felt pretty good during the lesson, and it unlocked a bigger and freer trot.  Tina had me encourage the bigger trot on the diagonals, so that Murray can learn the cue for more/forward/bigger where there is more space (than a circle) and then bring it to other work.  She encouraged me to really get him to fly on the diagonals.

Tracking left we got a couple of good extensions on the diagonal (for him Рobviously not real extended work), but tracking right I got almost nothing.  Tina told me to really boot him on that right-ways diagonal, and Murray responded by breaking into the canter Рbut not, as I later found out, an acceptable canter.  The next time around he did the same thing, so Tina had me kick him into a more forward canter.  Murray bucked twice and suddenly on the next right diagonal, he could move forward!

dress-4moar! bigger!

Tina’s assessment was thus: Murray doesn’t want to trot the big trot. The big trot is¬†hard. The small canter is easier – and it’s more forward! But it isn’t really¬†thinking forward ¬†– it’s thinking just forward enough to not actually have to do real work.

All of the following diagonals got bigger and better trots, and Murray was really willing and compliant.  Tina continued to encourage me to get Murray lower, and every time we did his trot got better and involved more of his body.  We were both breathing quite hard after this.

Next, Tina had me add a little engagement in the trot by starting in a shoulder-in and then shooting across the diagonal from that. ¬†I actually didn’t expect this to work, because Murray loves to use lateral work as a way to waste energy. ¬†Maybe the diagonals earlier in the lesson helped us, because once I got him straightened out he shot right across the diagonal with more hind end engagement. ¬†We only did this twice each way, Murray got it and it worked so well.

In the canter we did similar work. ¬†We started with some shoulder in down the long side – making sure not to drift off the rail tracking right – and an extension down the next long side. ¬†Tina helped me with another thing I have struggled with lately, which is Murray getting tense and inverted when I push him to be straight down the long side. ¬†He’s not¬†quiiiite ready to be really straight cantering just yet, but if I got him to lower his head more he could take MUCH bigger and loftier steps. ¬†Tracking right I got a few more steps of the floating canter, which was awesome. ¬†Left was a bit harder, since we were both so tired. ¬†We ended both of our extended canter stints with a little circle — almost 10 meters — where Tina told me to think about pausing in the upswing of the canter (like Megan did!) to get Murray to sit and hold himself up a little more. ¬†It felt great, almost like the canter-in-place that my MIL had me doing the other day (a coming post).

dress-8moar and better canter than this one!

As I expected, it was an excellent lesson. ¬†Tina gave us a few more exercises to practice and Murray stood up to the pressure¬†really well. ¬†Tina agreed with my assessment that Murray is mentally ready to take a little more pressure now, so I need to take advantage of this time to impress some important lessons upon his moldable mind. ¬†And I got a solid plan to move forward with – keep encouraging Murray to move forward, but don’t let him get away with not using his body properly.

I was a little worried that my lack of strength and balance was holding us back in the bigger gaits, but Tina said I shouldn’t fret too much. ¬†I wasn’t unbalanced in the extensions we did in the lesson, and only got unseated when Murray went from cross cantering into a really fast, tense trot. ¬†There is, apparently, time for us to grow in strength in the bigger gaits together.

nap 01hey, remember when it was sunny?! yeah me neither.