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.

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get with the program

One huge, different thing about my new barn is that now Murray and I are in a program. It’s not oppressive, but it’s there.

It’s not what I thought of when I (naiively) imagined a “program”. It’s not hallways of monogrammed trunks all in the same color and uniform saddle pads and a military requirement to buy that barn’s preferred brand of high end saddle. It’s not horses being fed up (or down) at the trainer’s discretion, without the option for preferred supplements or feed, or a requirement to be in training n-days per week or lessons m-days per month.

first day in blankies, with a new friend!

But there is a system. There are a few types of feed the barn gives to all horses there at least twice a day (a ration balancer), and they work with you to add in more calories or energy as necessary. They decide what pasture your horse is going to go in (with your input, if you have it) and make adjustments to smaller or bigger pastures as needed. The other day it was cold, drizzly, and foggy for the first time and when I got to the barn Murray was blankied up and happily out in pasture with his new friends. They didn’t ask, they just put on the turnout I’d provided and sent him out to do his thing. If someone needs the vet, they call the vet out and are there for the appointment. They’re there for you, but don’t necessarily force you into their mold.

One thing is absolutely true though: every horse at this barn is impeccably behaved.

with a couple of, uh, notable exceptions…

So after had the vet out to look at Murray’s strange lameness and he was about as tolerant of flexions as you’d expect (read: not very), Trainer J and I took a minute to chat about the plan moving forward. Murray flexed slightly positive on the right hind, and the vet thought that his hocks and joints were probably feeling crummy after standing in a stall for 3 weeks. Vet wanted me to get him back into work for a few weeks, then recheck and think about hock injections. Since I don’t have a billion dollars to throw at this problem, and my fall schedule is so spotty and strange, I wanted to develop a plan with Trainer J and get her thoughts.

What she said first surprised me. Trainer J wanted Murray to get into horsemanship lessons before we threw joint juice at him, and before we got into regular lessons.  She said that he’s spoiled, and that his current behavioral programming bordered on dangerous. The conversation went other places, and we covered all the bases I wanted to. Trainer J wasn’t mean or cruel about it, but she was pretty matter of fact: if I want to be in the program, Murray would have to get in it too. She said I needed to get her horsemanship guy, Cowboy Dave, out as soon as possible. Like the next morning, if he’d do it.

Murray is getting way better at walking past the Scary Hoop Houses, and loves being out in the field!

So we’re in trainer-mandated Cowboy therapy. I’m not going to pretend it didn’t hurt a bit to hear that Murray’s ground manners aren’t up to snuff. Even though it comes as absolutely no surprise to me. Or anyone who has read this blog for any period of time. It’s just one of those things that always triggers a ton of emotion in me.

I’m very open to change and learning new ways, so this isn’t a bad thing to me. But being in such a clear program is certainly different. At my old barn, all the horses were held to a much lower standard of behavior (basically: can you go in and out of pasture safely), and beyond that it was the owner’s problem to handle manners. For good or ill. I get the feeling that a lot of places are like that.

What do you prefer? More management hands on or more management hands off? Feeding and turnout only, or have them handle everything? If you’d asked me two months ago, I would have said hands off!


don’t talk to me just gimme dem carrots

But… I like the way the horses are here. They’re happy. The cowboy teaches them super well and is a great human teacher also. It’s probably a really, really good thing that they have a dedicated person to go to, to help horses and people communicate. But I also feel like this could definitely go the wrong way…. if all the horses are required to work with a horsemanship person who isn’t so fair, talented, or gentle.

This program seems awesome. I’m super glad I found it, and I think it will help us both become better versions of ourselves.

calming supplements & the placebo effect

I had a really tough ride on Suzy this week, which led me into a discussion with my barn manager about possibly giving her another dose of depo.  Barn manager suggested that since I spend a lot of time with Suzy, I’d be able to help Suzy’s owner decide if her behavior warranted another dose.  Now, there’s not a lot (almost none, but perhaps there is something I haven’t dug up yet) of evidence that depo actually does anything in horses, despite many, many, many anecdotes to the contrary.  Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, but I’m not really one to go adding hormones to someone’s lifestyle without a pretty good reason.

seemed appropriate here

This led me to think about the hundreds of calming supplements and treatments available for horses that have little to no evidence of a significant (or even potentially biologically relevant) effect upon behavior.  Hell, I use one of them!  Yet so many of us cling to these supplements and swear up and down that they are doing something.

But the placebo effect is a strong and very legitimate thing. Whether or not the placebo effect is causing actual physiological changes or is being exploited by companies to sell sham products, it is a very easy trap to fall into. Most of us are going to add calming supplements to a horse’s diet after they’ve been particularly wild and crazy for some amount of time — maybe a week’s worth of rides.  But if those particularly wild and crazy days are outliers, or even just somewhere on the edge of “normal” for that horse, then his behavior is going to trend back toward normal whether you add the calming supplement or not.  Those days were abnormal, and unless there’s something else significant going on to change the horse’s behavior (totally plausible — but not necessarily the case), the added calming supplement most likely did nothing.  The horse’s behavior was going to go back toward “normal” anyway.

big spikes of bad behavior like this == abnormal

Let’s say that we rate Murray’s badness on a very scientific scale of 1-10 each day: 1 is totally normal, no bad behaviors performed, 10 is rearing and striking.  (For the record, I’ve never experienced either a 1 or a 10 day.)  If Murray tends to hover around a 3.5 because he likes to get down with his bad self, but suddenly spikes up to an 8 one day, I’m likely to dump a bunch of extra magnesium in his bucket for a few days.  And then, because being a level-8 bad boy is a really unlikely occurrence, we just slide back toward the average. Which is both statistically and realistically much more likely to occur on any given day.

Especially because the way we think of behavior (or anything with a gradient, basically) tends to fall on a bell curve.  If we assume that each behavioral category is roughly on standard deviation away from the next, it means that behaviors in the “average” category occur 68% of the time. Behaviors one more standard deviation away from average occur with 95% frequency.  If being slightly nutty or slightly better than average is occurring with 95% frequency, any time you have a bad day, you have something approaching a 95% chance that your next ride will be better (assuming the two days are independent, which they aren’t).

So when we’re adding calming supplements, or more invasive approaches to calming behavior, how are we to know if we are really doing anything?  There are ways to test it — you could blindly rank your horse’s behavior every single day that you spend with him while another person either gives him that supplement or a sham supplement. Then you’d compare the distributions of behaviors demonstrated.  I just turn to the science.  Of course, there’s really not a whole lot of peer reviewed research in this area, which is frustrating.

All of this is not to say that I don’t believe in calming supplements or that diet can change behavior.  Obviously I do, and there are some behaviors that I have seen decrease rapidly with the right change in diet.  I am completely certain that if we mapped Murray’s behavior when he’s on alfalfa and compared it to his behavior off alfalfa, we’d see a significant difference.

even walking is hard when Murray eats alfalfa

But it does mean that I approach adding supplements like this with a fair bit of caution, and I pretty much don’t believe what I read from testimonials on the internet.  People are notoriously bad at understanding probability and statistics without training in those areas, and we love just-so stories.  We also really, really want to help our horses, and they can’t talk to us and say “I’m feeling a little extra girthy today, how about you take it extra slow while we tack up?” (I mean, sure, he does say that to me. It’s just usually while I’m tacking up and it’s a leeetle bit too late.)  It also means that I don’t pay too much attention to any one ride, or even any one week, when making decisions about this stuff.  One day is an outlier.  A whole week… could easily be a rough week.  Especially when there’s other stuff going on in the world that might influence behavior more than supplements do — changes in turnout, routine, weather… I’m seriously convinced that when the barometer drops, Murray’s brain swells and hurts his little head, because he’s usually much worse before a storm than during!

I may also use this logic to aggressively convince myself out of using supplements that might help. When barn manager originally told me to take Murray off alfalfa I was like “NAW THAT’S NOT A THING”.  Same with adding magnesium.  And both of those things had a huge positive effect on Murray’s general outlook on life.

So, how do you approach adding and subtracting supplements like this?  Just go with the prevailing wisdom? Trust your gut? Appeal to nature?

usea convention notes: boyd says

Phew. These clinic updates are turning out to be farther between (though hopefully not fewer) than I anticipated. Why does real life have to be so fucking busy?  I don’t even know.

So.

Friday at Convention was one of two main lecture/talk filled days, and included an Adult Amateurs Open Session.  I came into this session a little late, and when I got there Bunnie Sexton was answering questions from people in the room.  For me this amounted to a low-interest discussion of different jumping exercises that she keeps in her arena at all times (I’d much rather get that info through a lesson, it’s always just a little weird to me to just talk about these things without the context of the horse), and a moderately interesting discussion of how to shop for a safe, fun, and trainable Novice-level beer buddy.

But then we had a surprise speaker come in, and it was BOYD!

File:Boyd Martin Otis Barbotiere cross country London 2012.jpg

If you haven’t watched his keynote, it’s live on the USEA website now.  It was a great one — funny, endearing, full of adventure.  The only thing it could have used was more pony pictures!  And yes, he’s just as adorable and dreamy in person.

Boyd made a few comments that were pretty interesting, so in case you missed the live stream (I’m not sure there’s a way to watch it now, after the fact), here’s a few of my notes.

It’s a privilege to feel stressed

Boyd’s first comment about being an adult amateur is that the stress we feel during horse shows or before cross country is a privilege. We do this because we love it, and it’s a hell of a lot better than sitting on the couch watching Nascar drinking Bud light (his words!).

We get to do incredible things because of the strength, speed, and power loaned to us by horses.

The flip side of this, to me, is that if we don’t appreciate or feel privileged to have that stress… maybe we’re doing it wrong.

On blood rules

One rider asked Boyd about warming Crackerjack up in a hackamore at Rolex. Boyd responded with a story about Crackers coming out of dressage at Badminton with a little blood in his mouth because he would get so tense and forcefully brace on the bit in a show environment.  In this case, the official noted that it was a really tiny amount of blood and didn’t eliminate the pair.  But because of that incident and Crackers’ obvious self-injurious tension during shows, Boyd started warming him up in a hackamore. (Evidently this had the positive side effect of unlocking a better way of going for Crackerjack too, so it was a win-win.)

So I asked a follow up question about his opinion on blood rules. What did he think of them as they currently stood?  What about repeat cases?

Boyd responded without any real specifics. It’s eventing, and injuries can happen anywhere (especially on cross country) and in all kinds of interesting ways.  It should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and blanket eliminations might not fit all cases.  Bland and politically correct?  Certainly.  But there were little nuggets in there.

Boyd saw that his horse could incur an injury from a piece of his equipment — however strange and rare the injury might be — and changed his equipment to prevent injury to the horse (and subsequent elimination).  If nothing else, I would expect that to be the standard he holds other riders to.

You can improve him, but you can’t change him

In response to a question (sorry, can’t remember the exact question), Boyd said that an important thing to remember with horses is that you can improve them, but you can’t change them.

He gave an example of an OTTB he rode who jigged in the walk during the trial. He thought, no big deal — we can relax him and get the jig out.  But every time they had to walk in a dressage test at a show, that jig came right back out.

I’m don’t think Boyd meant “you can’t change anything” about a horse.  But in times of stress, we always see those habits coming back.  A horse whose inclination is to pull and gets heavy is going to revert to pulling and getting heavy when things get tough.  A  horse whose inclination is to invert is going to invert when the going gets stressful.

It made me think a lot about what traits I’d want in a future horse, and what habits I’d be willing to live with.

Be better

My favourite piece of advice from Boyd.  He sees a lot of amateurs bombing around the lower levels on a horse who is capable, just getting by, doing okay, but also being a little bit sketchy, maybe even dangerous.

Try harder, he said. Ride better, improve your skills, improve the way your horse goes.  Hold yourself to a higher standard.  Don’t accept winning just because your horse can get around.  Just keep getting better.

usea convention notes: level creep

One of the most interesting discussions (for me) at convention was the Course Builder’s forum.  There were some good updates on new rules (frangible pins, measurement of top spread on angled lines) and then a pretty informative discussion on “level creep”.

I first learned about level creep in 2014-ish when the proposed rule to have 1 or 2 fences on XC and stadium that exceeded the max height for the level by 2″ came up.  In my recollection, people were concerned that this constituted another excuse for level creep and making levels too challenging for the horses and riders competing at them.  My opinion of that was that if  horse is running around a 2’7″ XC but can’t safely clear one simple 2’9″ fence, then they probably can’t really safely run that BN course. 2″ should NOT make that much of  difference on a straightforward question. That opinion is even stronger now that I am more experienced at both riding and have a deeper understanding of  how courses are built and managed.

 

we’ve come a long way!

So, let’s start with the basics. What is level creep?  For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll define level creep as the steady increase over time of the size of fences and difficulty of questions on rated XC courses across the country.  Just in case it wasn’t self explanatory enough.

Why do we care about level creep?  It depends who you are. If you’re a rider who sees courses becoming larger and larger in front of your eyes, maybe you feel like you’re being sized out of your division.  If you’re an organizer, you are hearing people complain about your courses, and wondering how you can keep people happy and safe.  If you’re a course designer, you’re trying to build courses that help riders be successful but also meet the requirements for the level.

And maybe, no matter who you are, you’re wondering “WTF is this even real?”


this fence measures at the appropriate height for BN (2’7″ with 4″ brush)
but it is technically too challenging for the level, based on the downhill approach and jump toward the spectator area

So is level creep real? In short, yes. But also no.

The overwhelming opinion of the course designers and officials in the forum is that we see true level creep only when courses have been existing at too low of a level in the past.  Certainly, those course are getting bigger and more technical, because they weren’t big or technical enough in the past.  And this, in and of itself, is a problem.

First, it’s not fair to have riders across the country competing at the same level (be it BN or Prelim) on courses that are different sizes.  If someone is jumping around 2’3″ or 2’4″ getting their BN points while other people are only getting Intro points for that height, that is inherently not fair. (And yes, everyone acknowledge that this happens, even if sometimes rarely.)

Second, allowing riders to feel that they have become competent at a level on courses that are under-sized and under-technical is doing them a disservice when they either visit other venues or try to move up a level.  Running 2’4″ cross country does not prepare you for a real 2’11” Novice course.  This was seen as a problem mostly at the Training and Prelim levels,  because the jumps to Training and Prelim are so big.


still a nice-sized fence, but on a much friendlier straight-away and level approach

If a level at a venue is creeping up to the national standard, can that really be considered level creep?

Course designers don’t want people to struggle (or worse, fall) at any level. But that’s not all on the course designers, is it?  And making courses smaller in order to accommodate what people in the area are used to or interested in riding is doing a disservice to the sport.  So they look at their results, evaluate their courses, and adjust within the requirements for the level as necessary.

Across California, I (and other professionals and officials) have noticed courses becoming smaller and more appropriate to the level at Training and below. This is a reflection of course designers and organizers acknowledging the problems in their courses and making changes.  This is the same process that the same course designers are going through at other venues in other areas, but instead, they are increasing fence size or technicality.

beginner novice fence 3 — under 2’7″ as it’s on a downhill approach
(you measure from takeoff, not the base of the fence)

What does this mean for riders?

For me, it confirmed the idea that level creep is mostly a non-issue.  I trust my course designers and officials — who are required by the USEA to change with regularity at each venue — to keep things within the requirements of the level, while giving an appropriate challenge for the level.  But what about you?  Have you experienced level creep? Do you see it clearly at events you attend?

But it also means that our voices are being heard to make changes.  When the courses in California were too technical and too big (four-ish years ago), riders and trainers made comments on the official USEA comment forms and personally to officials.  And course designers stepped up, re-evaluated, and fixed it.

If you’re a rider who is concerned about a question at the level, there are a couple of things you can do.  First, whip out your measuring stick and measure that bitch.  Fences are measured by putting a level on the top of the fence and measuring the height from the ground at the average takeoff point (six feet away and center), or landing point (for drops).  From the base of the fence itself, depending on how it’s set in the ground and how level the approach is, there can be 4″ or oven 6″ of variation.

the same fence as above measures above 2’7″ on a level approach,
and makes a nice, friendly Novice question for the beginning of the course

Second, if you really feel that a fence is not appropriate for the level based on your measurements, approach an official or course designer.  At the very worst, the official will tell you that the fence is appropriate and that will be that.  Possibly, they will talk to you about the elements of the fence that make it appropriate within the level.  Possibly, they’ll make a change — whether that means swapping out the fence, adding sand to raise the takeoff, or removing it from the course entirely.  This goes for fences that are not appropriate for a level because they are too small also.  How many of us would complain a bout a gimme fence on course?  I never have.  But those fences also add to the perception of level creep — because if I’m jumping a 2’3″ coop at Novice and thinking that’s appropriate for the level, obviously a 2’11” table is going to be a big change for me and my horse.

During this session the course designers also discussed making themselves and their contact information more readily available and visible at events.  They want to hear from us if we have concerns, because this is the immediate feedback about their work that they need. It also gives them an opportunity to help educate riders and trainers.

This sport lives on the backs of the lower level riders.  As riders, we want to be here, and as organizers we want you to be here.  This should be fun, but it should also be the good kind of challenge.

I think there will probably always be people who complain about fence size at the lower levels — it’s just the nature of having a lot of amateurs in the sport.  Or perhaps it’s a reflection of something that I’m not seeing.  Are you concerned about level creep?  Are there aspects of this that I’m missing?

 

are we having fun yet?

California is casually on fire right now.  Everywhere.  But mostly in wine country, which is especially hard because it’s hilly, winding, rural, and full of livestock.  And also because it means wine will be at least a little harder to come by in the not-too-distant future.

Riding non-Murray horses has been interesting.  I’ll give any horse a couple of rides before making any sweeping judgments, but sometimes you get an idea of what a pony is all about in as little as one ride.  Sometimes as soon as you sit on them…

i had a ton of fun on this bay nugget during our very first ride together. a good omen.

But what is it about riding one horse or another that is fun?  Obviously riding my horse is fun because I know all the buttons and how to press them.  We’ve also gotten to a point where I understand exactly how much to push and how much to give, so we can start to work on a few steps of really quality work that just seems to get better with every ride.  Obviously that is fun.

So what about with other horses?

Take the mama-mare I’ve been riding the last week or so as an example.  Our first ride together was… lackluster.  She fought me walking away from the arena gate (on foot and under saddle), and was magnetized to the barn-end of the arena like crazy.  The only place I could work in any semblance of a steady pace or shape was smack dab in the center of the arena.  I rode for like ten minutes.


the mom bod is strong with this one

A couple of weeks off and good fistful of rides later and this girl is my main squeeze at the barn.  She’s smart, sensitive in all the right ways, and learns really fast.  She also has a mean right drift, gets locked over one shoulder or the other really easily, and hasn’t quite figured out how to give to pressure instead of leaning in to it.  (Yeah, homegirl, you do have to move over when I put one leg and one rein on simultaneously.)

But it’s always fun riding her.  Even in the tough moments, when we can’t seem to walk in a straight line consistently, or my requests to get off my leg are met with weirdly strong mare abs.  Maybe it’s because it’s easy to see and feel her thinking and processing what we’re working on.  She also feels really honest and like she’s trying, in the moment when she’s not being openly defiant.  She slows down to think when I ask her to, responds to my seat… really, just my kind of ride.

In contrast, a certain Barbie Dream Pony I’ve also been riding lately has not been quite as much fun.

Image result for haflingerbreed hint: it rhymes with pfefferlinger.

Interestingly, the BDP has the same mean right-shoulder drift and locking mechanism that the mama mare seems to have.  He is smart and food motivated, and he learns… well, not super fast, but he’s not a moron.  And I’ve ridden him fewer times than the mama mare, so maybe that is contributing to our lack of jelly.  He’s not mean spirited or dangerous in any way, but I kinda get the feeling that he’s not listening to me.  That he’s just phoning it in.

So maybe that’s the reason I don’t have as much fun with the BDP.  A big part of our rides consist of me trying to convince him to pay some attention to what I’m trying to tell him so that we can actually get something done.  I think we all know that it’s frustrating to be ignored.

Now that I write it out, I think there really is something to this.  That I have more fun on a horse who seems like they are listening.  Because the mama mare basically doesn’t canter for more than one big circle at a time right now, and she’s almost as much fun to ride as my own horse.  But the haffie, who is capable of executing all three gaits, is just… not that fun.  Riding my friends’ horses also can go either way in this regard — sometimes they just don’t know how to listen to me because they’re so in tune with their person and I’m NOT that person.  And sometimes you get really good instructions and they listen to you perfectly and it’s AMAZINGLY fun.

What about you?  What makes a fun ride for you guys?  Is it as intellectual and annoyance based as me?!

beastmaster

I have a vivid memory from when I was a small child (yes, even smaller than I am now!) of walking on my family’s property and coming across the herd of four horses they owned.  I remember this story not only because it was such an important incident in my small life, but also because I retold the story many times after — which we know makes a “memory” stronger.  We were walking through one of the paddocks (translation from Australian: a fenced area bigger than the entire property my horse lives on. Seriously, the farm was 6,000 acres and this paddock took an hour to meander across at my child’s pace) with my aunt, owner of the horses, probably my sister, and some other adults.  We were near the horses but not exactly underneath them, and something spooked them and they took off.  I remember this so clearly not only because a pony spooking is alarming to a sub-4-foot child, but also because my aunt grabbed me across the body and pulled me in close to her, I assume now to avoid the potential crushing of not-her-child under the unpredictable feet of her horses.

we were wandering somewhere out toward those hills

At the time it was so sudden and I marveled at my aunt’s ability to essentially pluck me out of danger’s path before the danger itself was apparent.  Now that I’m more familiar with horses, I know that there were probably a number of other factors that helped her predict the event — a windy day, horses already on edge, probably at least one dog sniffing around and likely to flush a bird from the grass.

For one of my odd-jobs I help a local woman with her three yearlings.  She also has two 2-year-olds that live in the same, big, 6-acre pasture.  The five of them usually come galloping in to me when I show up at the gate or call them, and it’s funny to think how recently I would have shielded myself behind the gate for such antics.  My confidence around horses has grown tremendously, even since becoming a regular rider and comfortable handling multi-horse situations.  Working for my trainer and mucking the paddocks (translation: American paddocks, aka the little ones) for the just-raced-yesterday ottbs, turning horses in and out at my barn, playing with young horses — I’ve had lots of opportunities to watch horse behavior.  I know that the youngsters will stop or split or wheel before they get to me with any speed, and that they are always happy to see me.

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I love when the children run to greet me at the gate

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It’s pretty nice to walk in among the kiddos and scratch here and there and get a bit of loving from them.  Both of the two year olds will always make groomy-lips when I start scratching their withers or midline, and will take the opportunity to exercise their groomy lips on anyone who walks by.  It’s actually insanely adorable, and I’m so sad that my phone camera is too zoomed in to get any good video of this action.  Especially because one of the 2 year olds is a giant 17hh beast already, and he’ll just grab on to the yearling gelding’s neck and start grooming away.

I’m still figuring out nuances to their body language, of course.  The smaller 2-year old started positioning his hindquarters to me about a week after the 1- and 2-year olds were first put in pasture together.  I got annoyed at him at first, because I had no desire to be kicked, and it’s rude to point your kicking apparatus at friends for no reason.  Then I realized that the bigger yearling mare is actually top baby in the pasture, and she loves to follow me around — so the 2-year old was positioning himself for a quick getaway from her.  When the bossy baby came after the little 2-year old with her mouth open (I should point out that he’s not actually little, he’s just littler than the giant) I was more than happy to step in on his behalf and push her away from both of us.  They can settle their little dominance disputes however they want when I’m not there, but nobody makes snarky faces at me in pasture.

Who’s top pony? I’m top pony.

murray obviously agrees

I wonder if the deep understanding and nuance that we can start to read in equine relationships contributes to the impression that some people have about a magical, wordless, on-a-higher-plane relationship and connection that one could hypothetically have with a unicorn horse.  I was probably as astonished when I saw someone wave their arms to fend off galloping horses as I was when my aunt saved my life.  And if you think about it, it’s pretty incredible that we can see an 1,000 pound beast approaching at a high rate of speed and throw our hands up in the air to divert their course from right on top of us.  What the inexperienced novitiate doesn’t know, really, is that running on top of humans is squishy and likely not the ideal footing for a horse, and that they especially don’t want to run on something that looks like it might be bigger and even less predictable than it currently appears.

Learning is funny like that.  To the uneducated, it seems like magic.  To the initiated, it is almost mundane.

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But I still think of myself as a motherfuckin’ beast master any time I lead more than two horses in from the pasture in one trip.