changing my buttprint

One of the hardest things about adapting to PonyLyfe has been actively working to not ride Sammy like I rode Murray, and training my brain to not expect him to ride like Murray. (It is a little embarrassing for Murray that I’m a skosh unseated by the pony’s relatively “big” gaits though.)


I took Emma’s advice and put my phone on the fence and this was the first shot I got and it’s pretty exemplary of pony’s and my relationship

This has been the biggest problem in jumping, though of course it’s come up in dressage too.  Our first few jump lessons were super easy and straight forward, and I didn’t try to put too much buttprint on the pony anyway. I pretty much just pointed him at the fences and let him get us there, which worked well for him. The courses weren’t terribly complicated and I wasn’t fussed by a deep or long spot so I just went with it. Then around my third jump lesson I started to be like “wait just one darn minute, I get to have some input on how we get to those fences!”


exhibit a: Nicole is very good with a braced hand

That’s when the trouble started, of course. When I insisted that we not just bomb around at the fences, Sammy was like “ok well that’s not actually part of the agreement, which means I don’t have to do my part either.” Mostly he didn’t stop dirty, but a couple of times I thought we had a pretty good step to a fence and he was like “NOPE”. Luckily for me, this coincided with a couple of frigid, snowy weeks in early March when most people weren’t making it to Sunday group jumps, so I got several private jump lessons (for the price of group jumps – yay!).

We had two main problems. Number one, that I couldn’t figure out how to get the pony to slow the fuck down. Number two, that I couldn’t figure out how to shorten his step when we were coming up to a fence because of number one. To fix number two, I kept trying to sit down into the pony coming in to the fences which would be when Murray naturally shortened his step. This made us both jump super awkwardly. To fix number one, I basically yanked on the pony’s face for dear life, because I had zero other tools in that particular kit. It’s what I get for riding a super sensitive push ride for five years.

TrJ fixed number two first, then tackled number one. The fix to number two was basically: keep a lighter seat, don’t drive to the fences. Just a matter of practice. The bigger fix came when we started to get the speed issue sorted.

Because of the way Sammy was like “just don’t touch me approaching the fences”, I was feeling both too fast, and out of control, and like I had no influences over what was going to happen. Which just made me go *grab grab grab* at his face more, and resulted in stops. TrJ emphasized that I really need to get my step on the turn to a fence, and approaching the fence just stay steady. Sammy can be trusted not to BARREL down to a fence and then get on the forehand and stop, but he can’t jump if he thinks you’re getting in his way. And if I didn’t get my step around the turn when I asked for it quietly? Add a bigger half halt until I got the step.


this is SUCH HUGE PROGRESS for us

TrJ is big on having a rider half halt in time with the canter step, and of course in my head I was like “wow this sounds a lot like see-sawing”. But, as I’m discovering with TrJ, there’s a lot more to riding that I don’t understand than there is that I do. Half halting in time with the canter could be see-sawing, sure, if I wrenched back and forth with a see-sawing motion in time with the canter. But if I half halt and release in time with the canter to avoid getting a fixed hand that Sammy then ignores and braces into? Not really a see-saw.

Once I started to figure out how to stop just hanging on one or both reins to ask him to slow down, and making it clear that I really mean it when I ask for him to slow his feet down, all of my half halts got more effective.

Sometimes when I’m riding the pony I feel like such an utter n00b. He weirdly manages to make me feel like I don’t know how to keep my leg on or my hands following or stay up in a two point, and I’m just flapping along like an utterly out-of-control pony rider. Little bits of progress like this have made a huge difference to our rides, though! And for all our struggz, this little guy is making my butt way more educated.

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unlocking pony

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

WHYYYY GREYY

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

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


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

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

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

so very not-tall

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

climbing rope + moving forward

Somehow, getting my horse forward has become a central theme of my life again. I had thought that I would try to establish the whole leg = go, no seriously it means go every time thing early on in my next horsey relationship. I guess I didn’t count on leasing a pony.

But, I did have a great conversation with TrJ in one of my lessons that helped me figure out a biomechanical problem I’m having, and helped us reformulate our approach to flatwork with young Samwise.

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Handsome little beastie . . . #reboundpony #weißwurst

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TrJ — and many other people who have trained me — comment constantly on my clinging and creeping leg. TrJ’s particular words are to let my heels drop down, and relax through my leg. But I’ve heard it many other ways. So finally, during a walk break in a flat lesson, I was like “soooo am I using my leg wrong? It feels like I’m climbing a rope, where they creep up a little bit more every time I squeeze until my leg us all crunched up.”

TrJ said she had a VERY similar conversation with the son of her trainer when she was a kid. The son said “it easy to solve, just push your leg down every time before you kick!” TrJ evidently tried that for a while. Seems easy enough, right? — jam leg down, kick, jam leg down again — and it turns out that is not actually the solution. I mean, not long term anyway.

The crux of the problem: the pony is not in front of my leg. I kick a little, and then I kick a bit harder and maybe squeeze a bit too, then I kick from that squeezing position, and next thing I know my feet are all the way up on the saddle flaps and my knees are at my chin like a jockey.

(I’m out of pony media, so please observe Smellinore demanding pats.)

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Place pats here . . . . #jellinoreroosevelt

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I’m at a slight disadvantage because of Sammy’s size. Because he’s short and rotund, my calf is what contacts his sides the most, and it’s a tad more difficult to make a clear kicking motion with the calf. But, TrJ pointed out, there are a lot of really tall riders out there (Boyd, William — she just refers to 4* riders by their first names like we see them all the time, ha!) who have this conformational problem on normal sized horses. However, they have no problems. Why? They get the horse responsive off the leg early.

So we spent the last few minutes of the lesson focusing on getting Sammy crisp off my leg in all gaits. He’s pretty good in the trot, especially after just a couple of kicks. But in the walk, his two-year-break from real work really kicks in. Sammy is like “no, the walk belongs to me.”

And that makes perfect sense. In jump lessons, we pretty much canter, jump a course, praise the snot out of him, and then let him do what he wants in the walk. And I plan to keep doing most of that, minus the part where the walk becomes the “pony rules time” gait.

TrJ had me do the very familiar exercise of giving a small kick and if I got no response in a couple of steps immediately following it up with a kick + tap of the dressage whip. We did several circles where I tried to walk for just four or eight steps before coming back to the trot and it was rough. Sammy was like “super, the walk is mine!” so I immediately reverted to shoving with my seat. Once I got my seat still, it was hard not to get yanked down out of the saddle but his attempts to scratch his face.

I repeated the exercises on my own during a ride and was really surprised how many repetitions it took for Sammy to start listening to my leg without the whip. I started the exercise going between trot and canter, because I know it’s a much easier transition for him to grasp. And grasp it he did! Transitions weren’t perfect, but they were there and they were prompt.

In the walk I got absolutely tuned out. Like, the second we were walking, I basically didn’t exist. I was maintaining the contact (insomuch as we had a connection at that point), so it wasn’t like I was throwing the reins away and saying “break time” with one aid and “work time” with another. But I did probably 20 or 25 transitions from walk to trot where I needed a light tap of the whip to back up the leg aid. To the point where I was like “oh man, I’m going to have to quit doing this in a second because it’s starting to feel an awful lot like a fight.” Finally, somewhere around attempt 26 I guess, I got a transition into trot just from my leg. It wasn’t super prompt, but it came before I got the whip organized and I was just like YES YES PONY YES and threw the reins away and let him have his head. I did one more transition to trot and Sammy was like “fine, I’ll play your stupid game” and then I practically leapt off and stuffed his face full of cookies.

your human games are stupid and you’re stupid and you should feel stupid, human

It did not take Murray 20-25 walk-trot transitions to get the idea of this exercise, so I was a little worried about the amount of time it took Samwell. But it turns out the pony is a clever little cookie, and I haven’t had to have the discussion more than one time per ride since then. So it took longer to stick at first go, but it has stuck much better than with my own horse!

Originally TrJ suggested I work on a bit of getting Sammy forward and a bit of getting Sammy to push into the bridle during each ride, and bring the two together as we made progress on each. But they converged way faster than we expected, and getting pony forward has resulted in much better interest in stretching forward and down. So now I get to work on both at once, which is obviously so easy for a unitasker like myself.

And for those of you who sometimes feel like you’re climbing rope when riding your horse, I have an exercise for you….

weißwürste

Things have been coming along quite nicely with the little white pony, and we’ve had some big breakthroughs in our flat rides. I’ve also started calling him “the little weißwürste (weisswurst)”, because he is white and sausage shaped. And weisswurst are white sausages. He thinks it’s hilarious.

Leasing is definitely a bit odd. I can feel how the pony wants to shoot over his right shoulder an is a little weak on his left hind. I want to fix it, because I know that getting straighter and more symmetrical will be better for us both in the long run. On the other hand — it’s not totally my problem. Not that I won’t work toward making him stronger and better (see: the campsite rule). But it makes it feel less… personal, if that makes sense. Like my future with this horse doesn’t live or die based on my ability to get the little one’s feet moving evenly beneath him. It’s an exaggeration, but kinda gets at the feeling.


i thought he was starting to look a bit trimmer and sportier but nope — still a sausage!

Anyway. I’ve had two flat lessons with TrJ to date, both focused on trying to convince Sammy to move into the contact, stretch out his neck, and lift up his back. To my great relief, TrJ mentioned in the first lesson that while the pony is fancy and does have all the moves, he hasn’t really be asked to use himself properly, consistently, or by a rider who isn’t a child in the last two years. His job, recently, has been teaching (a few) kids the ropes of up-down, and jumping whatever he’s pointed at. So it’s not just that I suck at riding and can’t get him on the bit. It’s that he’s pretty sure he doesn’t have to do that.

And like, he was really sure he doesn’t have to do that. The first lesson TrJ and I tried a variety of things to get Sammy to think about the connection. I could flex him (pretty firmly, too), I could move him in and out on the circle, I could kiiinda bend him — wasn’t too bendy really — I could try to massage one rein or the other or both or intermittently and he would respond by doing…. nothing. Literally nothing different. Like, he wasn’t defiant or rude or reactive at all. Sammy just straight up ignored me.

So. That was…. interesting.

But I get it. This pony has literally spent the last two years being praised and rewarded for safely packing kids around by balancing on his underneck and ignoring their unsophisticated hands or wild flailing.

 vs.  
standard sausage shape vs. desired dressage sausage shape
(these are actually weisswurst)

However, it is still crazy frustrating to be like “hello, I am doing several things right and also everything in my power to get you to even think about yielding to one of these reins” and be met by nothing in response. From a positive-reinforcement perspective, it also means you have nothing to reward. Which makes things hard for the reinforcement-crazed like me.

Between our first and second flat lessons, a week apart, we made some progress on our own. Sammy started thinking more about giving to the bridle. And in that second lesson we got a few moments where he put his head down or stretched into the connection. I mean, I’ll take what I can get.

he’s pretty meh on mud though so water-at-speed could be interesting

It was after that lesson, though, that Sammy finally gave me something to work with. Part of it was definitely getting him more forward and responsive to the leg (probably more in another post). But the other part was, I think, just persistence. I wore him down to the point where he was like “fucking fine I’ll see if I can give this bitch what she wants.”

He’s really motivated by praise and scratches, and especially by walk breaks. So if there’s something to reward, I definitely have things to reward him with. While trying to get him off my left leg a bit better, Sammy started actually protesting the connection a bit. He offered to run me into the wall (politely declined), and then grudgingly moved off my leg. When I started back up on the circle, he was like “ugh FINE” and stretched his nose out and took my hands out in front of his withers.

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Handsome little beastie . . . #reboundpony #weißwurst

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It was so awesome! Finally, I was getting some kind of response to my riding, instead of just rote reactions that he knows are required (turn, stop-ish, go-ish). I managed to get him stretching down a few times in that ride. The next one was even better, because we got to that place much faster. Sammy was annoyed that I insisted on any kind of connection with the left rein, and was almost shaking his head with annoyance. I ignored the head shaking, tried to align his body a bit better by putting his left hind under him (tracking left), and gave him somewhere to go with my hands. It’s tempting to say it worked like a charm or he plunked right on to the bit, but he didn’t. He did, however, test out the connection and the new place that this alignment allowed him to go. I just tried to stay present but non-restrictive with the connection, and praised the crap out of him every time he stretched out and down.

I actually had to cut my ride short, because he was being so good and I didn’t want to ruin anything. Which is kindof a win-lose-win situation. Because obviously I wanted to keep riding and having fun, but didn’t want to reward Sammy’s efforts with more work when he wanted to be done. So I stole some of TrJ’s arena cookies (she keeps a jar by the gate for after lessons, Sammy beelines towards her any time he so much as suspects she’s coming in to the arena) to stuff in his face as a big reaward for a good pony.

who cares about sunsets, give me treatz

We’ll make a little dressage pony out of him yet!

 

 

 

rebound pony

If you spend any amount of time at my barn when the horses are in, it’s utterly impossible to miss the world’s cutest pony poking his nose out at you from his stall.

Sammy believes — rightly so — that he’s entitled to ALL THE TREATS

So when TrJ mentioned that I might do all right on this pony in Murray’s absence I immediately jumped at the offer. I love ponies. I love that I’m the right size to ride ponies. I love all their sassy, awful, hilarious, naughty behaviors (for a little while, at least). I love that it’s weirdly acceptable for ponies to be like that, and I especially love that it’s really not my responsibility to change that!

After a quick tune-up lesson on Sammy before trying out that horse before Christmas (a very interesting experience on its own), TrJ invited me to join a group jump lesson on him before deciding if I wanted to lease him. And after that jump lesson I was hooked — this pony is one cool mofo.

too cool for you

I was a little nervous when we were warming up for the jump lesson. I hadn’t jumped since August, after all, and hadn’t really ridden at all since September. Also, the last time I jumped a horse who isn’t Murray was basically this time last year, or much earlier than that if you don’t count Sookie.

But when we trotted down to that first X, Sammy was like “oh sweet, I got this.”

just let him at those fences

I’ve never ridden a pony with a solid flatwork foundation; most of the time it’s a bit like “okay well do your best at steering and get him pointed to the fences, he’ll take over from there”. But Sammy is cute and fancy and actually knows how to go on the bit, and has a shockingly big, forward stride for a little guy.

In our flat lesson, TrJ coached me through getting Sammy even and pushing into both of the reins. He’s got a tendency to fall over his right shoulder in both directions, and doesn’t want to connect to that right rein. TrJ really had me focus on resisting the urge to pull on one or the other rein and bend him with my leg, which is obviously just super basic dressage stuff but is SO HARD when you’re used to riding your own horse your own way.

apparently not yet a fan of selfies

We’ve jumped twice now, and I can tell he’s going to be excellent at helping me break some bad habits. He sometimes starts drifting off to the left of a fence, and of course when you pull on that right rein he’s like “super duper, I’m going to keep going way from that”. But when you just ride him between your legs and keep him straight to the fence? No problem.

A couple of people have suggested I take him out and show him this Spring, which would be a ton of fun. I’m not yet sure how that fits into the bigger picture of savings + horse buying, but we’ll see. TrJ really wants me to get him out, as his other rider (an actual child) isn’t quite ready to show Sammy, and he’s quite the favourite around the barn. Also, he’s fast and used to win jumper classes I guess, and it would probably be fun to see him getting out and doing that again.

also he makes the cutest begging faces

There’s an absolute bucket of reasons this pony is perfect for me right now. He’s much more trained than I am, so I can really work on myself and apply all of my biomechanics cult lessons. He’s a confident guy on the flat and over fences, but doesn’t give everything away for free, so I’ll still have to work for it. And he’s the cutest thing ever, whose greatest flaw is his hard-held belief that every time we pass the gate he deserves a cookie (there’s a jar “hidden” there for after lessons).

The other huge benefit to leasing Sammy is that I’ll be much, much less likely to impulse buy something stupid. I’m not usually that impulsive of a person, but I’ve got terrible taste in horses. At least, that’s what the record suggests. But if I’m working on myself and having fun with Samuel over here, then the horse-shaped void will be at least partially filled. And maybe I’ll only need like two or five dogs to fill in the rest.

Sammy is my rebound pony, and I’m totally cool with that. He’s cute and fun and we are going to have a great time together.

such a different view!