twin recap: enough

Look at where you are,
look at where you started.
The fact that you’re alive is a miracle,
Just stay alive, that would be enough.

– Non-Stop, Hamilton

 I told you this entire week would be about Twin.  I needed to get it all down for myself, so I can remember everything.  There are a few more things to wrap up, a little more retrospective, and a little less gloat-worthy.  Though there will still be a bit of gloating — one can’t help oneself after such a weekend.

victory can-NOPE

Between cross country and stadium Murray dug up his entire stall, added a small water complex, and took full advantage of the terrain.  I tried to flatten it out when I checked and walked him on Friday night, but dirt that your horse has dug up and then peed on is HARD to move with a pitch fork.  And he completely dug it up again the next morning so… I gave up.

After stadium Murray was practically throwing himself on the ground, and I knew he’d been struggling with the fact that he’d been essentially unable to roll all “weekend”.  I quickly untacked him and in lieu of a rinse took him down to the lunging arena for a little roll in the soft sand there.  Murray was more than happy to comply, and somehow on his first roll managed to unlatch his halter and stood up happy as a clam… and totally loose.  Fortunately he was also too tired to go running off, and the other girl in the arena thought it was funny rather than annoying.  He had six or seven more good wallows in the sand before I put him back in his stall, which he flattened out over the course of the next day until it was hardly possible to see that he’d completely re-engineered the day before.

The tubigrip solution worked splendidly to ice Murray’s legs.  I cut a length of tubigrip twice that (and a bit) of Murray’s front canons and pulled it on over his shoes, folded over, with the fold at the bottom.  It was very easy to stuff ice cubes in the pocket that created, and then move the ice around with my hands to give coverage where I wanted it.  Since Murray’s extensor tendon swells on front of his left canon, I wanted ice over the front and back of his legs, so this was nice. I wrapped the ice pocket up tightly with a polo wrap, which helped keep the ice up as well as added some cold pressure to the whole shebang.  After that they stayed up nicely for 30 minutes, and I had a cold, wet piece of tubigrip to use over the poultice when I was done to boot!

The most wonderful thing about this entire weekend was feeling all of our hard work and training pay off.  We have both worked hard — Murray to improve me as a rider, me to teach him some fraction of what he ought to know.  And it has been a road full of terrain, water traps, and even a few U-turns and misdirections.  There are so many times when I wished I could have bought a horse who was braver, more reasonable, more compliant, a better mover, smarter — I didn’t want any of those things this weekend.

I bailed on our partnership ways only a human could, and Murray stepped up to fill the gap in the only way his pony self could.  He went forward when he needed to, woahed when I asked, and let me know in no uncertain terms that he had got this.


murray and I feel rather different about the ribbon ceremony

It feels so good to come through every phase of an event filled with pride at what we lay down, even if it wasn’t my vision of a perfect or winning dressage test, even if we didn’t perform as well as we can at home.  There wasn’t a single time this show when I wished I’d made better choices for my horse — though there were obviously several moments when I wished I’d made better choices for me!

Twin showed how far I have come as a rider and horsewoman too.  I didn’t expect Murray to make up for my deficiencies (though he did it anyway), and I didn’t try to bully him through to something that neither of us was entirely sure of.  I knew I’d biffed it getting ready for cross country, so I didn’t try to fight him over the fences, and I was ready to withdraw if he needed it.  But he didn’t, and I’m so, so grateful.

We have truly, finally, built a successful partnership.


this is the cutest we have ever looked

redirection

Murray and I have been doing some ground work in the rope halter before each dressage ride since we got our rope halter, so for about a month now.  It’s all been very easy stuff, an attempt to remind him of the rules of polite society.  You know, walk next to me here, stop when I stop, go when I go, back up a little.  Stand — and do just that, just stand — is a hard one for Murray.  He doesn’t relax easily and wants to anticipate whatever is coming next, especially if he thinks what is coming next is an attempt to tighten the girth a little.  He thinks that dancing away or small circles around me are exactly what he should be doing.

The ground work, other than helping with our warm up, has been very educational for both of us.  I tried to play with shoulder in when we first started, and Murray would get tense and scoot past me.  At first I got frustrated that he essentially ran me down, but it was easy to see that Murray wasn’t comfortable with what I was asking and couldn’t figure out how to slow himself down.  Figuring out exactly how to get Murray to slow down took a bit of trial and error.  The best solution for us was to drastically slow down my own pace, taking slow and precise steps, and letting Murray go back to a more comfortable speed after a few of these slow shoulder-fore steps.  It is hard for him — the hardest thing ever.  So no more shoulder in for now.

On the ground, and under saddle, Murray’s backing up has been getting so much better.  He was pretty reluctant to back up  unless you really got angry with him, and then he’d march back practically sitting down.  But if you asked him to just back up a little,  even if you pushed him, he’d kindof shuffle backwards with one foot at a time, making a four beat gait out of something supposed to be two beats.  And it would include lots of sideways motion as he tried to pivot around me instead of actually stepping backwards.  Now it’s very reliably a two beat gait, even if it does sometimes rather resemble an egg-shaped circle.  He doesn’t quite get it if I’m facing him, but if I step backwards myself he gamely travels back with me.

So one day, a few weeks ago, when there were some poles laid out on the ground I led Murray forward over them, and then asked him to back up over them as well, after reading that it’s a useful exercise for stifles.  Murray gamely took one step backwards, then one more tentative step wherein his hoof landed on the pole.  That was obviously not okay, and he skittered forward  and around me with a very, very suspicious eye.  I patted him and settled him down, then gave it another go.  Murray was very much not okay with this idea and danced his way forward, shook his head and nipped at me, and struck at the air.  The reaction wasn’t quite what I expected, and really not very polite, but it did give me a lot of information.

I tried one more time, and Murray wouldn’t even stop after walking through the poles this time.  He flung himself forward and away from the poles, trotted around me a little, then stopped and looked at me like “what are you going to do about it?”

If Murray were a monkey, I’d call his behavior redirecting.  The idea of going backward over the poles made him uncomfortable, so he tried to change the context of what we were doing. This is easy to identify with aggression: one monkey gets threatened by another, and turns around and threatens someone nearby (often an innocent human observer).


maybe this new knowledge will help me decipher… this?

I wish I’d written about this sooner, because there was something in particular about the whole incident that showed me this was more than just naughtiness.  But it was quite clear that he was actually very uncomfortable with what I was asking, so responded with silliness. Importantly, it’s changed how I react to Murray being silly with me, on the ground and under saddle.  Sometimes he is silly because he literally can’t control his body, and evidently he is sometimes silly because he’s actually very uncomfortable with what I’m asking him to do.

If he’s actually confused, and not just objecting for the sake of getting out of work, then I should probably reel in my annoyance and reconsider what I’m asking and how I’m asking. I have been consciously trying to be less of an asshole to Murray, but sometimes it’s hard when seemingly very basic things are curiously impossible to him.  But all new information is good information, so we’ll keep chugging forward, and I’ll try to keep this in mind the next time Murray responds with “silly” instead of “trying”.

jumping:dressage with obstacles as showing: ??

Remember when the SAT had that amazing analogies section that confused the fuck out of 96% of people, and the last 4% were major over achievers or just faking their understanding?  Yeah, those were awesome.  I finally understand how to do them, now.  Thirteen years too late.

this is my horse scratching his own sheath with his teeth because he’s just that flexible.
on the other hand, the mystery of how he bloodied his sheath is now solved.

We hear a lot of analogies in training; jumping is just dressage with obstacles, right? (Or, as I like to call it “dressage with shit in the way”).  And I’m going to try to push my own analogy for the forseeable future.  And please, chime in with your opinions on this because I am pretty sure I just made this up and it could be completely, completely invalid.

Showing: just schooling with field trips.

Part of this is a coping mechanism.  Murray and I aren’t anywhere near as “ready” for Twin as I hoped to be (though every ride we have as the show gets closer promises to prove me wrong), and if there’s anything I hate it’s being underprepared.  But my goal is to get him out and showing this year, and so even if we aren’t going out there totally prepared to finish on our dressage score or ready to take home all the prize moneyz, this will still be a valuable experience for us.  Every show that we get through without Murray being a) eaten by a pony-eating jump, b) murdered by his owner, or c) disqualified is another check mark in the “see, shows aren’t that bad Murray!” column.  And that’s what I want.

And really, should an impending show change the way I’m schooling and riding?  I’m trying to create a well-rounded and correct horse, not learn tricks to pick up points on a dressage test.  Sponging my hands or wiggling my ring finger or whatever other nonsense I could come up with to get Murray to look like he’s in a frame for a dressage test aren’t going to be long term solutions that teach him how to come on the bit and use his body better.  Sure, there are movements that need a little more practice and transitions that can be polished, but ideally, I’d be working those transitions in at home as well.  But those aren’t big things that I need be “preparing” for.


things i do need to prepare for: making my fabulous new stock ties!!

So for the rest of the year, I’m going to treat all of my upcoming shows as schooling field trips.  Or try to, at least.  Schooling field trips that I’ll get feedback from strangers on!  And where my tack is really clean and my breeches really white.

The goal is not to change my riding or training or stress out about the fact that shows mean things to people who like to win (I am also one of these people, so I’m trying to be less of one of these people).  Shows are just schooling away from home or schooling after a trailer ride.  We’ll see if this mentality works on Murray!

the what-if train

Sometimes I board the what-if train.

What if Murray had been trained (pun intended) by a professional from the beginning?

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What if Murray was owned by a better rider?

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What if I had trained Murray “right” from the beginning?  What if I got him on the outside rein and insisted he go straight and forward and use his body properly?

DSCF9914 - Copy

Where would he be?

Obviously I don’t know. Nobody does. We don’t get to play Quantum Universe Skipper and check it out, or watch Man in the High Castle videos about our horses in other “could be” universes.

It doesn’t stop me from wondering though.  Would he be further along in his training? Undoubtedly.  Would he be stronger, more confident, more capable, and better behaved on the ground?  Maybe.  Would he still be breaking away from trailers at shows and running over assistant trainers?  A distinct possibility.

I think I can say, without hubris, that I am doing the best I am capable of with Murray.  I know we’re learning together, and that makes things slower and less accurate. Maybe that’s a boon to us.  If I knew more I might expect more, and I might push more.

I’ve met a few fried horses before.  Horses pushed too fast or to hard or given too many inconsistent signals.  Would Murray fry?  Maybe.  I know from past experience that trying to bully push him beyond what he is physically comfortable with results in … nothing good.

At the end of the day, I get off the what-if train because I’m truly satisfied with Murray’s progress.  Maybe we would both be doing better if we had other halves.  But that isn’t what we have.  What we do have is a fantastic partnership, and the ability to learn with each other.  We have taught one another how to be better and stronger.  We will go where we can, do what we can, and that will be enough.

It helps that his face is the sweetest and most squishable.

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stubborn together blog hop: couples therapy

PiccoloPony brought up something interesting, which ties in with thoughts I’ve been having about mentorship, learning, and training lately.

How does your current (or past) trainer manage the partnership/relationship between you and your horse(s)?

B has been my only serious riding trainer, though I’ve had many mentors, coaches, and teachers in my life.  I’ve been her student on a lesson horse, a 4-day-a-week lease, and Murray (who was a care-lease-to-ownership situation, if you’re not all caught up on that).  And I’ve been treated differently on the different horses.

On Mighty, my lessons were great, but limited by my skill.  I will admit I don’t remember a ton about these lessons.  I know we did a lot of coursing but no terribly challenging questions, and didn’t really jump above 2’6″.  B didn’t focus on my position overmuch, though obviously I got a lot more comments on it than I do now because I was a lot more green.  She was always pleasant and encouraging.  Mighty challenged me a lot but he was a really well known challenge for B.  She knew his tricks inside and out, and had assessed me as a rider pretty quickly so could tell exactly what I needed to do.

might bigger

When I moved to leasing Quincy four days a week, with at least a lesson each week, my relationship with B changed.  This was at least in part because Quincy was her step-daughter’s horse, so there was a stronger tie there.  Quincy was also a particular dressage challenge because he was very upside down and had a lot of muscles that said he wouldn’t go that way.  He wasn’t the best horse for me to learn dressage on, but she didn’t have any dressage schoolmasters at the time (moved facilities, downsized the herd, etc.).  But with that came a LOT of personal encouragement and demonstrations to help me understand concepts I did not understand.  And I continued to not understand them, but not for lack of trying on B’s part. I was simply too green to horses still.

I wrote a lot of words that didn’t really answer the main question here.  But in essence, both of these horses were reasonable, steady guys and when something was going wrong it was very, very, very apparent that I was the one making the mistake(s)(s)(s).  B was always kind and reasonable telling me about these mistakes, and I think she appreciated my ability to make fun of myself and realize that I still wasn’t sitting the fuck up even after she’d been yelling it at me all the way to a fence.

IMG_1049at least I kinda got my leg under myself in that time

Enter Murray stage left.

From the beginning B warned me that Murray would be a) slow, b) frustrating, and 1463746_681994785174666_1547265509_nc) potentially really fun. She always emphasized how important it was to keep a good attitude with him and end things on a positive note.  She’s come running across the arena when I’ve been clearly having an absolutely terrible ride, to calm me down and do what needed to be done to either get me back in the saddle or diffuse the situation.  I can always trust B to encourage me back towards a middle-ground with Murray: if I’m being overly harsh and crazy, she’ll point me back towards gentle. If I’m being too soft, she’ll remind me to buck up.

Murray also has a special place in B’s heart since she found him and took a chance on him when he was 2 and basically still a foal on big horse legs.  I know that helps her see through the ridiculousness.  I also think/know that as a pair we make her laugh during lessons (especially jump lessons), which I know as a teacher is WAY more fun than lessons where you don’t laugh.

IMG_3333It sounds a little odd, and sappier that I’m used to being, but I can tell that B wants to train me and Murray to be better together.  (In part, because she knows she’d have a hell of a time selling him for me if I got sick of him! hah!)  It’s not just about getting this movement down or that exercise completed, but actually improving the way the two of us communicate.  She reminds me a lot of where we came from and how much progress we’ve made, even if Murray is still secretly a lazy, naughty, Thellwell pony in disguise.

punctuated (riding) equilibrium

I first learned about punctuated equilibrium in the context of evolution. It is one explanation for why evolution doesn’t occur in a straight line, or why we don’t see populations of organisms slowly evolving from one form into another.  This is because there are long periods of stability (equilibrium), punctuated by periods of rapid mutation accumulation and evolution.

(Don’t worry, this has to do with horses, I promise. It’s not a science lesson.)

DSCF9901Murray and me, March 2014. HOLY SHIT HE WAS SUCH A BABY. WHY AM I RIDING A FOAL.

I think of progress in riding in this context as well.  There’s no straight lines in riding (except on the diagonal maybe), and the path from one set of skills to another set of skills is often somewhat circuitous.  That’s because it’s so much more complicated than simply being taught how to do a new thing – “wow, today I learned that if I weight my heels instead of pushing my toes down in my stirrups I’m more stable!” – and actually being able to execute that thing with any level of proficiency.

punctuated-equilibrium

Obviously the same goes for the horse.  We teach them things like “put your head down” or “lift your back up” or “stop taking such tiny, garbage steps, Murray” and expect those lessons to sink in after one or two or three repetitions.  That’s totally enough, right?  (That’s how long it took you to learn algebra, right?)

Think about how hard it actually is to learn to keep your heels down or your shoulders back or your reins at a consistent length. That shit is hard.  And those aren’t even things that require you to really use your body in drastically different ways than we already use it.  It just means that you have to pay more attention to what is going on with your heels, shoulders, or hands than you are inclined to until the habit solidifies.  So imagine how much harder it is when you actually have to lay down big tracks of muscle and radically change how you fundamentally want to use those muscles.

puncuated-equilibrium-1

Add into this equation that muscles hurt when you’re building them, and then you don’t want to use them the way you’ve been using them, oh and also nobody told you why you have to use your muscles this way in the first place, they just keep pushing and pushing and making you do it, and you’ve got the level of comprehension of this process that horses probably have.

I’m pretty sure this is how we learn anything, it just doesn’t feel like it for other skills.  But nobody learns to talk after one session, or starts grouping variables one day and steadily progresses until they hit differential equations.  There’s times where all you do is practice endless quadratic formulas thinking “why the fuck is my teacher assigning 3-479 odd, does she have nothing better to do than give students busy work?!*”

* Don’t pretend you never said that about a teacher in high school.

punctuated-eq-3how it feels for easy things

I think that we often have an unrealistic expectation of progress because for lots of things the stagnation periods happen on such a small scale that it looks like linear progress.  Because the steps are tiny and we forget that it wasn’t just a gradual slide up into awesomeness.  But don’t be fooled, there are periods of practice to anything.  And if you think about riding with all the tiny little steps you’re actually solidifying one at a time, then that progress does seem a lot steadier and more gradual.  We’re just bad at looking at it that way.

dress-4Murray and me, 2016. See how linear that was?!

engagement, ethics, and media silence

I, along with many others, am writing in response to the strange occurrence of blood in the mouths of three horses under one rider in the span of a year.  But I’m not here to talk about the blood, exactly.  If you’d like to read my favourite current article about this issue, look to Ruthie Meyer on Eventing Connect.  I also watched the video of the press conference after Fair Hill, almost all ten minutes of it.  The reporters asked the right questions, and they got answers.  But no resolution.

The problem isn’t just the blood on the horses or the mysterious black towels – it’s the radio silence from governing bodies and official channels and the curious attitude of some writers and riders that those of us questioning the situation should shut up and stop questioning our betters.

(however, update: you can read the opinions of several eventing seniors here)

Over and over and over we hear that eventing is a sport that not only values but lives upon its amateur base.  That those of us who ride in the lower levels, who may dabble in the upper levels but don’t live there, are the heart and soul of this sport.  That our engagement in this sport is critical to its survival.

So why is it that when we have serious questions and concerns about something going on in this sport, we are told to shut up?  We are looking to the officials – veterinarians, technical delegates, ground jury members – and other professional riders for some resolution in this matter, and instead of anything concrete we have gotten silence.

And I get it – we live in a world where something said once on the internet can be brought up again and again, forever and ever*.  But by the same token, the way this issue is being handled will permanently affect the future of our sport.  For future competitors watching upper level riders appear to skirt issues that directly affect horse welfare, what is this modeling?  Is this the type of horsemanship or showmanship that I want future technical delegates and judges to display?

And we do get to question our “betters”, because the moment they stepped into the public eye that’s what they were opening themselves up to.  If they want our support, be it emotional, financial, or social media, then they have to accept the questions that come with it.  That’s what engagement is.  No, we don’t get to be assholes about it (and of course vast swaths of people on the internet are because: the internet), but rational questions and serious concerns should be addressed.

Maybe we really are making too big of a deal out of this.  I’ve bitten my tongue plenty of times, and I live to tell the tale.  Is there an underlying issue that makes this horse particularly susceptible to tongue biting?  Well, don’t you think other officials would know that?  And if this really isn’t that big of a deal, teach us why.  It isn’t hard.  Don’t treat us like the small percentage of people on the internet too stupid to learn anything.

But it turns out that this is concerning.

(Here’s the math: If we make a few basic assumptions – that upper level riders are photographed equally, and that we can control for the number of horses you ride at any given event – we can see that this one rider has had four incidents to everyone else’s 0.  And a quick calculation makes that an approximately infinity % increase over the current industry standard.)

This chipped away a little bit of my appreciation for eventing as a sport and as a community.  And it wouldn’t have taken much to assure the public (read: me) that something is being done to get to the bottom of this situation – either by the rider or by officials.  And it makes me a little sad to know that I participate in a sport that isn’t as ethical as it could be.

* And whenever you introduce anything ever so slightly controversial on the internet the crazies come out of the woodwork.  I get that too.  The absurd comments that were made on some posts straight up challenged Poe’s law.