karibu wazungu

Welcome, white people.

I don’t think I ever expected to live in such amazing, terrifying, and humbling times in my life. A global pandemic that we still can’t see the end of and a global social movement against police brutality and the systemic racism that has oppressed people of color for so long.

On the one hand, I can chalk this up to optimism. I was obsessed with infectious disease in high school and wrote my senior literature project on how the world would handle the outbreak of a novel virus (I modeled mine after Ebola, so less infectious but more lethal than COVID) and came to the conclusion that while we probably don’t have the surveillance and rapid-response systems in place to handle an outbreak well, the likelihood of one was relatively low. (So uh, 50% right there I guess?)

On the other hand, my lack of expectation for a movement to eliminate systemic racism comes from ignorance and my own privilege. Because I did not see the extent and severity of how systemic racism oppresses people. Because I did not expect society would be willing to back people of colour and make a change. I’ve never been more delighted to be wrong, though my ignorance is painful to me as well.

From 2011 to 2013 I was lucky enough to live in Kenya and Republic of Congo for 9 months and 7 months respectively, conducting research for my dissertation (hashtagblessed). Living there I was obviously in the minority, and exposed to levels of racism and privilege beyond my wildest nightmares. From watching white tourists discuss how disgusting they found aspects of Kenyan culture while in the car with their Kenyan tour guide and driver to seeing the management of the conservancy fail to train and promote a single black Kenyan beyond middle management and the wild tenfold salary disparities that went with that to having dogs that were, moments before, friendly to me approach my black friends with a “kill first, ask questions later” attitude encouraged by their owners.

still a moment from my research life that melts my heart

One day I went to a local 3-day event in the town of Nanyuki, near the conservancy I was living and working in. The wives and daughters of several C-level execs were riders and competing at the event, and when they heard that I and another researcher also rode, they invited us along. At the event, one of the wives was coaching her black Kenyan groom through his warm up, and we all watched and cheered as he ran cross country. He had started as their stable hand, did a good job, expressed an interest in riding, and so his boss offered him what was functionally a working student position in her barn. She furnished him with a trained horse, gave him excellent coaching, helped pay for his equipment and tack, and provided him with opportunities far beyond what he would have been able to achieve on his own. She was, to all outward appearances, and probably to her white friends, an exceedingly generous and anti-racist white woman who was helping her staff in one of the ways she could.

Back at the conservancy, this woman was a nightmare. She took over the management of the research center, a facility that was previously managed by a black Kenyan who was head of research, and during my time there somehow the Kenyan-run research projects that were present at the conservancy drastically dwindled. She bullied the research center staff to work longer hours and provide food and a menu that we never asked for with no pay increase. She was one of the most openly racist people I encountered on the conservancy — and if she behaved that way around the researchers, all of whom were her paying “customers” and literal strangers to her — I can only imagine what her behavior was like in private.

I obviously never asked (it may not surprise you to learn that I avoided that bitch like a death adder), but I’m sure that woman would insist that she was not a racist. And a big part of that belief would probably be based in moral self-licensing. Moral self-licensing is a contradiction in human behavior: after we do something good, we give ourselves mental license to do something “bad” later. This can be everything from “I had a salad for lunch, I deserve a splurge for dinner” to “I bought organic produce today, fuck that homeless guy asking me for change”.

another magnificent, altruistic chimp girl to break up this text

I’m telling you this not only to describe a fascinating behavioral effect, but to encourage people not to fall into this trap. As we work through bettering this crazy world, we have to remember that wearing a mask and protecting your community doesn’t mean we can give up on other elements of being a good citizen — kindness, caring, and staying the fuck at home (if we are lucky enough to do so). As I learn about and leverage my own power to help remove discrimination and educate those around me on being anti-racist, I must not silently allow my older relatives to maintain racist attitudes and behaviors just because “they are old” and changing their behavior is hard. They still vote, and they still interact with the world, they should not be racist.

This is not to say that anyone should be going all out all the time. We all need time to rest, recharge, and relax. But I want to challenge all of us to be aware of and careful about moral self licensing in our own behavior, and to see if we can push towards doing good without allowing ourselves to “do bad” on occasion as well.

Kenya is where I learned the term “wazungu”, a broad term that refers most strictly to “white people” but is often used more generally to refer to anyone who is not a black African. It’s not particularly derogatory, though it obviously can be. And it is where I learned that I, too, am mzungu (mzungu is singular, wazungu plural). Even though I am half Chinese, I am in the most privileged class of people of colour: I am white-presenting from a class that is not largely discriminated against in the western world (let’s tackle Asian-on-Asian discrimination in China another time).

I have always thought of myself as someone who has worked hard against racism. In Kenya and Congo I worked with my friends and staff to give them new skills they could leverage in their positions within the conservancy, and I have always pushed within the conservation organizations I have been involved with to encourage the hiring of local staff instead of a reliance on white staff or volunteers. I see now that I was morally licensing myself — seeing myself in the light of my past behavior and not thinking about how I could and should continue to work against racism in my life here at home.

You can count on me to keep challenging my family members, shoving the data in peoples’ faces (also this data, because COVID isn’t gone yet), pushing for police reform, voting, demanding better within the organizations I work with, using my privilege as a witness and — if needed — a shield, promoting the work and voices of BIPOC,  and particularly supporting BIPOC farmers*.

So I say this to myself as well as others: Karibu wazungu. We have work to do.

* If you’re in the triangle between Baltimore, Charlottesville, and Chesapeake, you need to check out Sylvanaqua Farms. Chris Newman is an incredible farmer, thinker, writer, and human being who is revolutionizing the food system of the DC Metro Area to promote regenerative agriculture, BIPOC farmers and land holders, and good food. He doesn’t want successful small landholders to be the exception — he wants them to be the rule — and he has a plan to get them there.

on words

The words won’t be forgotten, thought Granny. There’s a power to them. They’re damn good woods, as words go.

– Granny Weatherwax
in Wyrd Sisters, by Terry Pratchett

I still have a few things to write up about what I learned from this year’s Mary Wanless workshop, but I’ve realized through my explorations of the internet that Mary’s methods aren’t the most popular out there. Different people have different objections, but one of the ones I’ve seen is that people don’t seem to understand what she’s saying. That Mary’s words don’t always make sense. And I had some thoughts on that.

Some people might object to Mary because the words she says to higher-level-Mary riders can be pretty inaccessible. During the workshop Mary talked to Tanya about making a board from her 2-pack to the horse’s neck, passing over some cervical vertebrae and then into the neck and through to the poll, pushing the board longer to encourage the horse’s neck to move down and out. Weird, right? I’m happy to admit it. But Tanya is a super high level rider who clearly has abilities well beyond my own. But even to the mid-level demo riders, Mary said some things that might come across as strange if you haven’t been working in her world for a while. “Imagine strings connecting your hip flexors to your horse’s hocks, and draw his legs further under him with every rise as you post.”

What you aren’t seeing, when you just read or hear those words, is all of the reinforcement and awareness that Mary has developed with that rider. One of the parts of Mary’s program that she has emphasized at her workshops is developing greater bodily awareness within each rider. Sometimes it comes in the form of questions: can you feel your frontline all the way up your thighs? How about all the way up to your collarbone? Can you take a deep breath with your left lung? How about your right?

By connecting exercises about body awareness to words about body parts, Mary is creating riders who have a strong understanding of how what specific, discrete parts of their body are doing. Tanya’s awareness of her body is so high that when she thinks of that board from her 2-pack board she turns on a whole suite of muscles, a suite of muscles that are doing things that change the way the horse goes. She’s not just imagining this board. She is doing through imagery.

So yes. Those words are Martian.

When Murray had his amazing session with the cowboy, the cowboy said “I’m going to move his left hind foot by looking at it.” And I looked at the cowboy like he was stupid. But he looked at Murray, and Murray moved his damn left hind foot. And then he moved his right hind when the cowboy looked at that one too.

How. What the fuck?

Pressure, said the cowboy. Energy.

Those words were meaningless to me. About as meaningless as “imagine a board that goes from your 2-pack line into his cervical vertebrae”.

I also watched Kate’s cowboy work with one of her horses. It’s remarkable how all those highly effective cowboys are almost the same. He waved a flag at a horse and the horse did nothing, then he waved it a little differently and the horse yielded to the flag. “So,” said Kate, “you’re practicing changing intention.” “Exactly,” said the cowboy.


refractory to intention

“How do you change your intention?” I asked Kate.

“Well,” she stared at me, “I guess I change what I intend.”

The cowboy gave me the gift of elaborating a bit. It’s about the energy, he said. The energy with which the flag approached the horse, and the energy the flag had when he “released” it from the horse. So we were back to energy.

But what is energy? And how do I change it? When a cowboy hands me a rope, the only other tool I have is flapping my body around and metaphorically, or literally, yelling what I want at the horse. But working with my cowboy, and Kate’s cowboy, you can hone your skills until they are closer to those cowboy tools. Closer to “energy”.

People — including me, it should be noted — also think that natural horsemanship cowboys are speaking nonsense at first.

Think about what you hear some upper level dressage clinicians say.

Ride almost in a shoulder-fore.

Rounder. Flex him.

More. Less.

Half halt.

These words are all just as much Martian as “imagine you have a board from your 2-pack line” or “change your energy”. But they have a meaning in Dressage, a meaning that the people listening to that clinician might even have 1/3 of an understanding or comprehension of. I have maybe 4% the understanding of what “rounder” means to Charlotte Dujardin. I know that a half halt is a thing, even if I can’t execute one to save my life. More? Less? Those words have total mastery over me.

But that’s the thing. Lots of people watching that clinician won’t really know what those words mean, know their full meaning. If they are just a passing rider or auditor, they certainly won’t understand what those words mean to that clinician. But they think they know. They think they understand how to apply “rounder” and “more” to their own riding, and suddenly that clinician’s words become so much more “accessible” to the rider. And the clinician is therefore deemed worthwhile or a good teacher because the listener’s language comprehension skills approximated 1/12th of what they were saying.

Make no mistake. These high-level instructors are all speaking Martian. Some people think they understand Martian. The best of us are just working hard to understand their words.

Image result for wyrd sistersthis book is 100% worth reading btw

leasing: the struggle is… medium

The last year of leasing has been an interesting one. And, to be totally honest, when I first started thinking about this post two weeks ago, my outlook was much less positive. So far, things have pretty much worked out for me — but things could absolutely not have swung my way, and I’d almost certainly be a bit more mopey right now.

When I first started leasing, I was just looking for something to sit on. Hence, #reboundpony. I’m not the sort to just kinda plod along, plus I was getting a lot of encouragement about the weißwurst from the sidelines, so of course I immediately started working on transforming the pony into something a little more sport-pony-y. But I also thought I would probably only be leasing in the short-term, and so I wasn’t looking for anything in my lease. If that makes sense. I wasn’t trying to find a horse I could progress with, necessarily, just one to help keep me in shape. Samwell was perfect.


I am very cute, now give me cookies

Then Timer literally fell into my lap. Big, fancy, a ton of fun to ride, and opinionated as shit. After working one another out through many lessons and lots of long, romantic walks where I thought deeply about what I was doing, we really started making progress. For sure, I had to do thing on Timer’s terms, but since he was pretty knowledgeable, it wasn’t always a bad thing. I started to think about showing T  at Novice in 2020, and tentatively leveraging his athletic ability and confidence to move up to Training when we were ready. Then in October, T’s owner told me that she would be taking him back at the end of the year. He’d been going so well that she wanted to think about moving him up to Prelim in 2020, and wanted to have more personal control over his jumping schedule.

I was both devastated and completely understood her decision process and needs. If he were my horse, I wouldn’t be sharing him! After taking a minute to wallow and think about impulsively buying something for myself, I put my head to thinking about a solution to my problem. I truly became a schooled-horse convert while riding T. It was the classically simple opportunity to work on myself. And I realized that I’d do a lot more for myself and my riding and my goals to keep riding horses with a higher baseline than I have so I can more easily and effectively level up my skills.

And this is not to minimize or reduce all the lessons that my green horse, and many green horses, have taught me. But I’m not going to get better at coursing 3′-3’3″ by teaching another OTTB how to jump cross rails and trot around the ring with a bit of connection.


this is totally fun, and I want to keep doing it. but I need to develop my own skills, too!

The problem with this plan? I don’t have the money to buy something going, and I don’t have the money to pay for a lease. I was pretty much looking for a care lease of some kind. Even more specifically, a super-flexible-and-or-half-time one — because my schedule is crazy and dumb at times.

Luckily for me, there was another horse at my barn who was almost exactly what I was looking for. Harry: a former Training level horse who didn’t really like jumping Big. So I checked in with the owner and TrJ and we all thought it might work. Harry’s current leaser was backing down to a half lease, so it was a great opportunity for me to slot right in there and pick up the other days in his work week. I took a lesson on him and he was fun! Not super easy on the flat and a bit of a tricker in an oh-I’m-really-quite-poky kind of way, but enthusiastic and happy about jumping. A weird additional perk was that I would be the more knowledgeable of his two leasers, so I felt like I’d be able to really make some progress with his dressage without feeling like I was messing up what his owner had carefully tuned to herself.

speaking of carefully tuned
(now I’m just going back through all my favourite pictures)

When I got back to the barn in January though, things with Harry had changed. His other leaser wanted to up her days on him again, and a teenager moving up from a pony had been taking lessons on him on his other days. And so Harry’s work week was accounted for, and suddenly I found myself up in the air about what I would ride again.

How could I complain? I’m not going to demand that people bend their leases or lessons around my riding desires, especially when I’m not in a position to pay for what I really right now. I’m in the position of begging and being unable to choose, and I’m not the type of person to complain about how unfair that is. I mean, not endlessly anyway. I reserve the right to complain about it once or twice when feeling sorry for myself.

A tiny part of me felt butthurt that TrJ hadn’t prioritized my riding development as much as the teen’s or Harry’s leaser. But I knew logically that TrJ was absolutely not trying to leave me out with her decision. And that’s the rub with leasing, isn’t it? So much of it isn’t your decision as the leaser. You aren’t just negotiating with the horse, you’re negotiating with the owner and any other riders hopping in on the horse. Which, I’ve learned, can totally suck — like if the horse is used to being ridden *just so* by his very talented owner, it’s going to be hard for you to get the same results from him as she does because you aren’t her. Or if the kid wants to take the pony to a show on your lease day and it happens to be the only day that week you can ride and you can’t change your schedule to change that…. what you gonna do? Be a dick and smash the kid’s opportunity to take the pony out? I guess maybe. I’m just not that big of a dick though. *shrug*

remember when I could kinda ride? (wow this fence looks small. how? I’m not jumping bigger than this right now.)

Oh, and the time period before you’ve figured out how to balance and ride the new horse after coming off something you could ride pretty well and you feel like the most incompetent rider in the world? Duuuude I’ve felt it hard this year. On a pony who I totally thought was going to be a breeze to ride. On a horse whose owner makes him look so straightforward. On a horse who has packed his leaser around from her first show to being the 4th placing adult rider in her division for 2019. I couldn’t ride any of those horses satisfactorily when I first got on them.

In short, leasing kinda sucks.

But it’s also amazing! Because as much as I couldn’t ride those horses in the beginning of my lease (or the middle, at times), I gained a ton of skills from them. Both specific skills for that horse, and more generalizable skills that I could bring to other horses. I stopped being so entrained in just one way of going or balancing or weight in the reins, and learned even more about problem solving.

And luckily for me, TrJ pulled through with a fantastic new lease plan for me. So I don’t need to wallow in the frustrating things about leasing and maybe not getting my riding needs-desires met this year. It doesn’t change the fact that leasing can still absolutely be a struggle, it just skews my outlook to the positive.

Enter: Fergus. I already totally adore him.

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Made a sweet new friend this week 😍

A post shared by Nicole (@nicolegizelle) on

cooling off

When Murray first decided I first realized that Murray needed to be retired, I was interested in getting a new horse right away. Interested doesn’t even cover it, really. I was desperate. It was like I didn’t know what I would do without a horsey project to call my own. When I went to see that horse back in December (who ultimately didn’t work out) I had spent plenty of time stalking him online and was already imagining what my life would be like with his fabulous show name. I found all of his old sale videos, watched his current sale videos relentlessly, and when he didn’t work out, I was back to scouring the internet, looking for a good deal.


a certain extremely cute pony’s begging behavior is so firmly ingrained that he even begs for treats in the field

It’s a good thing that horse didn’t work out, because the reality is that I didn’t have the money for another horse just then — not the cash up front, and not the cash flow to pay for all the horsey expenses. And I’m still not in the financial or work position where I’d feel comfortable taking on a full-time horse — owned or otherwise.

In January when I posted about my thoughts on future horsey-dom, I had come to terms with the fact that I didn’t really have the money for a new horse yet, but I was still medium-key bummed about it. Sure, pony lessons were fun, but I couldn’t help but think about how much progress I could be making with my new horse in that time. And also heavily window shopping for said horse in the mean time. If a great deal had fallen into my lap in March, I don’t think I would have turned it down.


Murray was never into selfies pre-retirement

More than six months down the line, I’ve no longer got my-own-horse FOMO and I’m very glad I didn’t rush into anything with a new horse. Completely ignoring the money issue — I think we can all take that limitation to its logical conclusion — there are so many things about my current life that make horse ownership impractical. Especially green horse ownership! The glaring issue is the time. All that time I spent driving back and forth to California would not be doing my new (inevitably green) horse any favors. Even when I’m home, the farm isn’t exactly a low-key and undemanding job. I’ve spent more than a few days sitting in the truck or on the tractor for eight hours at a time, doing water runs, prepping fields, checking trees. And those are absolutely not things that I can just ditch to go riding (unlike constantly skipping out on writing up my thesis, lollll).

Also, if I’d bought a horse right after retiring Murray, you bet I would have rushed into it somewhat. Like, sure. I had a list and all that, but I’m also a sucker for a cute face and even more of a sucker for a good price. Emotionally/mentally compromised Nicole is not necessarily logical Nicole — and who knows how much TrJ would have been able to hold me back. That would very possibly have led to me being in a Murray-like position again because I think horses with a lot of “personality” are super funny and adorable. But it could also have led to a not-so-great fit between me and the horse, and then I’d be in the position of trying to sell a young, green horse. Which I know would suck. It absolutely would have led to me being back in the position of riding a green horse and trying to teach a green horse the basics of connection and dressage and jumping and not in the position to grow my skills where Murray and I left off. If I had my own horse, I wouldn’t have the lease on Timer right now.


me with every cute horse I see on the internet: I love you so much and you will be mine

Ultimately, this cooling off period was really good for me. I would never have asked for it at first, but I am so glad it happened. Time really was what I needed to chill out, but having great horses to ride in the interim certainly helped. At this point, I’m completely willing to wait on horse buying — for 6 more months, for a year, for two years — I’m no longer in a rush at all. My new dream situation is to pick up my second horse while maintaining my lease on Timer, so I can keep building my skills on T while new horse settles into the routine and gets with the program.

A few months ago, I was worried that not having my own horse would expedite losing my identity as a rider and someone who loves to learn about and improve my riding. But I’m not worried about that any more. Clearly I’m able to fit riding into my weird and wacky schedule given enough horsey enough flexibility. And even if riding isn’t my seven-day-a-week-all-day-at-the-barn-whenever-I-can-make-it-work hobby obsession of 2014/2015, that doesn’t make me any less able to work hard and grow in the time I do get to spend there. I’d love to get back to riding every day or even multiple horses a day in the future, but it’s just not in the cards right now. And that’s way more okay than I realised back in December.


more idyllic trail rides in my future, please!

what comes next?

One of the reasons I pushed things along this fall when we were diagnosing Murray was my impending vacation. I spent three weeks in Australia in November/December. Once it became clear to me that there was something more serious going on with the horse, I knew I wanted it sorted before I left. I did not need to spend my vacation trying to negotiate appointments and diagnostics with vets, or making big decisions about the future. I wanted things done and dusted — as much as possible — before I left.

For better or worse, that turned out to be a pretty simple request.

As of right now Murray is safely ensconced in his new pasture, making friends with all the geldings around him. He’s definitely gotten the memo that he’s retired, and has tested us several times with his semi-feral antics. Fortunately, my MIL is no fool. She knows the value of a good mannering halter and a carroty bribe.

So. What comes next?

disorganized aubrey plaza GIF

I can’t deny that retiring Murray has made my life simpler financially. Moving took a bigger hit on my finances than I expected, especially with the added expense of vet bills and hauling to get Murray to and fro. From that perspective, I’m very okay with hitting pause on horse ownership for a minute.

I’m not interested in hitting pause forever (I guess that’s called “stop”), or indefinitely. My ideal situation would be a six-ish month break — long enough to allow me to recoup my finances, ride a bunch of different horses, unlearn some bad habits, and think deeply about what I want in a pony partner. Then I’d start shopping in early summer (lesbehonest — I’ll be window shopping the whole time), but without a firm timeline so I could really wait until the right horse comes along. (My budget isn’t going to be huge even if I do manage to save save save for the first half of the year).

But real life rarely fits into our plans, so I’m going to go look at a horse today.

The Good Place GIF

I KNOW, I know. That isn’t the plan at all, Nicole! But I got a hot tip from someone I really trust that this guy is pretty cool and needs a home like yesterday, which his price reflects. I talked to the trainer and didn’t get any red flags. He’s close. His history is pretty good. TrJ knows the trainer who is selling him, and she thinks he’s promising.

If he’s perfect and he vets, I’ll think about making an offer. (Quite legitimately not sure I’m ready to pony up for all the accessories that a new horse needs RIGHT AWAY — two blankets, saddle fitting, potential new saddle, shoes, chiro, supplements, massage, etc. etc. so and and so forth in perpetuity.)

So we only move forward there if he’s PERFECT.

Otherwise, I told TrJ that I’d like to get into lessons and possibly lease, if she has someone available. She hemmed a bit on that, since all of her horses are leased out. She mentioned that I might do alright with one of her lesson ponies, and when I was like “I love ponies” she said, “Well, he’s actually a very cool pony.”


cutest little mofo around

For the forseeable future, there will be pony rides. And I am SO excited.

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.

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?