relax (don’t do it)

Murray got a whole week off after Twin, due in equal parts to the fact that he had been the best pony ever, and also because that whole 40 hour a week job can be a real bitch.  Predictably, I stalked the Ride On website until my videos were uploaded and have watched them all many times (okay, at least several).  There are many interesting parts of the videos, but one of the most interesting is how stiff and tight Murray’s hind end looks in our dressage test. The footing at Twin is nice, and on Friday Murray had lunged really well, and was moving better than he does at home. Even when I lunge him at home, he moves better than he did in that test.

My MIL also commented that the test was lovely, and with more relaxation we’d be able to get rid of the bucking through the transitions.  I agree.  I could feel Murray getting tense and tenser and tenser through the test, so by the time we got to that right canter transition I knew that no matter how subtle my cue, I’d be getting some kind of kick out.  What I really want to be able to do is take the tension that builds in Murray’s back and squeeze it out through the bridle throughout the test, instead of letting it build and build and build until it escapes through his butt.

look at all those blogs in my tabs!

Murray’s stiff-legged movement at Twin also suggests tension to me.  And something that I’ve been working on for some time to get resolved.  There seem to be two ways to get him to really unlock his hind end.  I can do it with lateral work, or I can try to get him moving really straight and forward and sitting on his hocks.  The first method is easier, but tends to end up with a bit of a noodle-horse for the rest of my ride.  The second method is harder — a lot harder — and sometimes means days of fighting before we get to compliance.

tiny steps + head down >> tiny steps + head in the air

Both are essential to our continued development in dressage, so I’ll be playing around with the two techniques over the next few weeks as we gear up for and think about Camelot.  What I would really like is to be able to add a little more pressure at Camelot than I did at Twin and go for a bit more of a forward-thinking test.  I’d also like to see more steadiness in the bridle.  For this, it seems like we just need more practice and consistency.  I have to make sure that I’m sticking to my guns and not letting Murray draw me into tugging or giving too much rein.  I suspect that more forwardness will help with the steadiness too.

I’m also considering a bit change.  Right now, Murray uses a loose ring French link with a flat bit in the middle.  It’s pretty thin and light, but the link is jiggly and I bet there’s some play in his mouth.  My trainer suggested the Stubben EZ Control again — I tried previously and didn’t see enough magical, mystical improvement to shell out $70 for a new bit.  But now that we’re a bit more developed and capable, perhaps something gets really stable when Murray moves into the contact will encourage a bit more steadiness on both of our parts.

moving properly a la JM (can I please have this horse at the show PLEASE)

That’s what I’m thinking about for the next few weeks.  Unfortunately, they’ll be somewhat inconsistent weeks as we have the WSS one day coming up, which is sure to take up at least a week of my time.  And Murray started the prep for Camelot well by encouraging his new pasture mates to bite him like crazy in turnout this weekend, and was muscle sore again on Monday.  So we’re back on the “if at first 1g of bute does not succeed” program.

I’m not totally sure how I can diminish tension in Murray by adding something he typically hates (leg), but that’s what dressage trainers are for.  Good thing Tina is coming on Wednesday!  But I’d love any thoughts you have about transforming tension into transcendentalism* in the show ring (Austen? Megan? Jenn? ANY HELP LADIES?) — even the baby steps of just starting to get there, which I know is where we’re at right now.

* Word chosen for alliteration and not meaning or accuracy.

train ’em up

There has been a consistent theme through all the Hawley clinic’s I’ve attended — and not just themes I’ve written about explicitly, like precision, rhythm, or strong basics.  Something a little more hard to put my finger on.

For example, one of my lesson mates biffed the approach to an oxer and hit it on an odd stride, but her horse went and even if he didn’t do it perfectly, he did it. Hawley was like good!, you did it.  When another rider said she didn’t think she could do the angle because her horse was so green, Hawley didn’t accept it (and with the right ride, the horse did the angle just fine).  When I couldn’t seem to get a rhythm or the correct lead on the circle of death, Hawley didn’t want me to break out of the exercise to fix things, but to fix them from within the circle.

WHYYY did i not train him to do this on purpose?

And to all of these small mistakes she said “there’s no other way, but to train them up”.

I didn’t hear Hawley give a long explanation for this, though I think I’ve heard her do so in the past (and stupidly didn’t write about it! wtf past Nicole?!?!).  This statement seems to be a bit of the riff on the old “if you’re not making mistakes, you are not doing anything / trying hard enough / learning / pushing yourself.”  Sure, we want to train our horses to be better, smarter, quicker, stronger, cleverer.  But if we only ever put them in situations where they will never have to  be better, smarter, quicker, stronger, or cleverer, they will never learn to how to become those things.

By extension, it means that if we aren’t giving ourselves opportunities to fail, we will never become better, smarter, quicker, stronger, or cleverer.  An interesting corollary to screwing up with confidence.

Along with this, I noticed that Hawley  has a different attitude towards horses than many of her students (clinic students?) seem to.  When we did screw up, she applauded us for committing, and frequently told us to pat our horses and make a big deal over them when they made the correct choices.  That wasn’t really new.  But when someone apologized to her and said she felt so terrible making her horse put up with her (admittedly very honest and reasonable) mistakes, HB was like “So? Give him an extra handful of grain tonight. That’s what you have him for.”

murray: WUT ONLY ONE EXTRA HANDFUL
FOR PUTTING UP WITH ALL OF YOUR GARBAGE?!

I’ve not attended a lot of clinics with big name trainers, olympians, or fancy riders, so I’m not sure if this is pervasive in the professional levels, though I imagine to some extent it must be.  And this is also not to say, in the least way, that she is not a kind, respectable, incredibly savvy horsewoman and rider.  Just that, perhaps, being all of those things on a professional level means that you cannot necessarily afford all the soft squishiness that tends to accompany amateur riders.  It’s a little less “this hairy beast is my whole heart” and a little more “we have a working relationship”.

But it’s true!  We have this giant, expensive, oversized pets to have fun and learn on.  If I’m doing those two things, what am I doing this for?  I feel far more awful when I’ve been making mistakes of hubris with Murray, like pushing him for something I thought we should be ready to achieve “just because”, than when I make an honest mistake, like riding him in a saddle that didn’t really fit for a year.  And as much as I appreciate his quirkiness and silliness and the feeling of connection we have both in the tack and out, he’s not the shoulder-to-cry-on-best-friend-through-thick-and-thin that some people profess their horses to be.

broseph just isn’t that into cuddling

I’m not trying to be more like Hawley or distance myself from my horse thinking that it makes me a better or more accomplished rider. (OKAY YOU CAUGHT ME I’M ALWAYS TRYING TO BE MORE LIKE HAWLEY!) But it is interesting to think about where, on the relationship spectrum, Murray falls in my life.  He’s no Ellie, that’s for sure, but I value him more than I do my chickens.  (A lot more, and not just because of price/size/weight.)  I will never, ever be able to sell him, but that’s not really because of our relationship… But I don’t want to, either, because I value our partnership and everything he has to teach me.

I do want to know where you fall on the spectrum — from “pony would sleep in my bed every night if I could” to “this is nothing more than a business arrangement” — and how you think it influences your riding.

in which I finally get to ride my horse again

After Murray’s Monday morning melting moment (gosh there are just so many fun alliterations I can make with this!), I knew that Tuesday would take a little more care and tact.  I got out to the barn in the evening, when the arena was already busy.  I tied Murray up in the same place as on Monday, and took it really, really easy with him while I was grooming and as I started tacking up.  I unhooked him when we got to the girth, gave him plenty of carrots, and walked him around the barn twice to both settle him and enforce manners (walk, stop, stand, good boy, walk more, etc.).  Murray walked around a bit more than usual, but didn’t seem like he was particularly scarred by Monday’s misadventure.

I started with lunging, as I almost always do for dressage lessons these days, and Murray wiggled and spooked around a few times.  He was a little short behind but he always has to work into a proper trot.  And then he was dramatically, absurdly, cartoonishly lame for five steps.  Like he had three normal legs and his left hind was wearing a rollerskate.  I stopped, checked his feet, walked him for a minute, and trotted him out again.  Back to normal Murray short-steppin’.  I called it a night to be on the safe side and gave Murray a big scoop of bute with a nice warm mash.

img_20170113_131724puddle drinking with friends

I wasn’t terribly surprised he was a little lame.  It could have been a rock/abscess/twisted ankle easily, since it came on very suddenly after passing through a deep-ish spot and disappeared just as quickly.  But Murray had also spent five minutes freaking THE FUCK OUT the day before, then a grand total of ten minutes on the lunge, and promptly stood in his stall for more than 24 hours while it plummeted from 50 degrees to 35 degrees.  I wiped his feet down when we got back to the barn to check more carefully for potential abscesses (nothing).  But when I put my hand on his glutes he tensed his quads and lower back so tight that the muscles were bulging like crazy.

So no riding on Tuesday.

Wednesday was just as cold and horrible, and it was pouring to boot.  Luckily when I got to the barn there was only one other person there, and she had just gotten done riding, so I quickly walked Murray out to the arena to check how sound he was.  I left his blanket on thinking that I could take it off if I needed to for further diagnostics.  When we got to the arena Murray was so excited for turnout, just so so so excited, and he kept letting me walk a few feet out in front of him and then leaping and flailing and high fiving the air with joy.  But manners, we must remember them.  So I insisted on a little sobriety for a moment, lunged, identified very quickly that Murray was not lame, and turned him out, to his great joy.  Then I brought in Murray’s best friend, confidante, and emotional support animal, Logan, and the two of them had a fantastic time.  Logan started out with a little scared side-eye, but once the two of them had run the wiggles out he was much happier and softer.

turnout01his happiness was a golden poem

Tacking up was much better.  I tried tying to a different spot and gave Murray lots of reinforcement for standing and being polite (which he is starting to get, as he will sometimes pointedly look away from me when I’m working with him).  We walked up and down inside the barn since it was pouring outside, and Murray was very reasonable.  Very reasonable.

I lunged quickly both ways and got on.  Murray was pretty forward but I could see that his back remained tense and wasn’t really working.  The wind picked up, and the lights in the arena danced the wild dance of poorly secured lights.  I forgot my tall boots, so had to ride in my Dublins, which was not my first choice.  But I was actually able to ride, so I took it.  This did not help, of course, with feeling secure and comfortable in the saddle with crazy winds + potentially crazy pony.

turnout03nope, not lame

Murray was wiggly, tense, and very forward, so I rode a bit front to back.  But I did not feel secure enough in the tack to really push him forward into my hands properly.  My whole goal was just to get him working and listening, instead of looking around the arena for things to spook at.  I started to feel more comfortable in the Dublins after we cantered, and Murray actually managed to put his head down and get some work done.  Every time the lights shook over us or the arena creaked and groaned he wanted to run in the opposite direction, of course, but he settled pretty well afterward and would get back to work after just a short spook.  Right up until a huge gust of wind shook the arena right on top of us, and Murray scooted off in the canter, and then right as I got him settled again a huge gust of wind made the whole arena shake, groan, and rattle above us and blew open the enormous double doors at the end.  I called it then and there and walked Murray back to the barn, where it sounded like we were inside a hurricane and the other girls in the arena joined me a few minutes later.

I checked the weather station on campus and the wind averaged 37 mph with gusts up to 47 mph at 10 meters height – i.e. arena roof height.  Definitely more than the 15 mph predicted by the weather app.  And there’s more of this to come!  HOORAY!

turnout02let me freak!

no more dr. nice guy

Per my goals post, a big one for me and Murray is to stop taking short cuts.  I don’t really know where to start with this, there’s no clever preamble to this stuff, I just need to dive right in.

I have skipped a lot of steps in training Murray in favor of funner/better/other things that I wanted or felt like I needed to do.  After three years we still can’t reliably tack up while tied, let alone stands still for grooming and tacking up like most other non-feral eight year olds.  We can’t use the cross ties, don’t stand for the vet, still freak out when people move things nearby (especially blankets), have knocked down at least two people on the way to turnout, break away from the trailer half the times we go out, and still can’t use cross ties.  And that’s just things on the ground that Murray can’t do.  I would list the things we can’t do/suck at while lunging, doing ground work, or under saddle except I just started that and it was super embarrassing so I deleted them.

shows

When I first started working with Murray I skipped things like really, properly working with him to tack up while standing still because I thought that with repeated exposure he would just… figure it out.  Other horses do that, right?  Later, I just wanted to get to riding.  I know how to work around his wiggling and get him tacked up so I can just go and ride.  I am very talented at doing up all the buckles on his bridle while he’s wandering off, and tightening the girth while he circles me suspiciously.  I know just how to lunge so he doesn’t stop and turn in on the circle.

After three years together, Murray and I know each other well enough that we can get some things done.  But just because I can do it with him doesn’t mean that Murray “can do” that stuff.  I can just trick, needle, or bribe him in to it, and it’s unreliable when most other people try.

But honestly, these are just the glaring holes that I’ve left in Murray’s skill set/training.  Even under saddle, and especially in dressage, I skipped a looooot of steps.  Not always because I just wanted to get on to funner things, but I’m not going to pretend that wasn’t some of the reason.  Trotting in circles working on connection, gaits, and relaxation is boring when the progress you make from day to day is miniscule, backward, and/or generally non-linear.  It’s a lot more fun to have a stab at putting on leg yields and do it with varying levels of success and correctness and then move on to walk to canter because those are pony dancing moves, right!?! Right?

xties

So I just… skipped to the fun stuff.  A lot.

I think everyone does it.  There are always times when you just want to get past the babyness or silliness or garbage or whatever and do something else.  A lot of the time I suspect there is no lasting effect — someone is having an off or funky day and can’t figure out how to ground pole so you just skip it for a ride — and you get on with your lives.  But in my case, I’ve ended up with a horse who dances around and still panics while I’m tacking up, walks away while I’m  bridling, can only be ridden and handled by a literal handful of people, and has a pretty reasonable number of days where we can hardly get anything done.

Murray has also learned a lot of things.  I’m not trying to have a (full blown) pity party blame game here.  I can actually get him tacked up, ride in all kinds of different arenas, jump all kinds of different things, and do some pretty solidly 5-6 scoring pony dancing moves.  We can walk from the barn to the turnouts in the pitch black or with a scaryscaryscary patch of light from a flash light wobbling in front of us.  I can put his blanket on over his head or over his back.  We can really do leg yields and even some counter canter loops — sure, they need polish, but we can do some shit!

It’s time to really get the rest of that stuff done.  Even if it means I don’t get to ride that day because I spend all my free time working on basic ground manners or getting Murray to stand properly for tacking up.  No more short cuts.  It’s time to train this pony right, from the bottom to the top.

I don’t have a fully conceived plan for everything I want to get done.  A lot of it just involves making a point of doing stuff that Murray purposely doesn’t want to do – like walking with impulsion and connection.  Even if it means we never trot that day.  Even if it means Murray kicks out and flings his head around.  We must be able to do these things.

So no more short cuts. Even if it means I don’t get to ride that day. Even if it means I spend weeks on the ground.  Even if it means having my feet trodden on and tears of desperation and frustration.

Making Murray a well rounded and well-broke horse is worth it.

he also tried to commit suicide in the crossties once
the last time Murray set foot in the x-ties was more than a year ago

setting up for success

One of my goals for 2017 (though you don’t know it yet as I haven’t pushed the goals post) is to write more ride recaps.  They are really helpful, and since I don’t jot things down in my ride journal consistently any more, it’s good to have information preserved here.

When I got back from Thanksgiving last year I launched right into riding and Murray was Not Into It.  I stuck it out because I didn’t want to get off and lunge him simply for the sake of lunging and letting him “win”, but… better choices have been made.  Another of my general goals (for this year and forever) is to set both Murray and I up for more successes (success = confidence = more success = more confidence = NOTHING BUT A CIRCLE OF AWESOME).  So after 17 days off and very limited turnout, I threw Murray on the lunge line to start off our ride.

lunge02pony looks strangely huge in this image

Murray is typically less reactive to the long girth (setting up for success!), so I put on his jump saddle and brought the lunging equipment out to the arena.  I haven’t lunged Murray without some kind of dressagery-contraption on him (side reins, chambon, etc.) and boy does he look funny with his head all poking up in the air.  After his mini vacation Murray had the steering and go button of a lesson pony — it was adorable.  He got a couple of wiggles out, shook his head a few times, tried to pretend that he didn’t know what to do when poles SUDDENLY APPEARED in front of him, and then we got to work.  He struggled a little to hold the canter going right, which was odd, but I figured that he’s allowed to be a little stiff after so much time in his stall.

After getting on I tried to stick to my principles of making things go right from the beginning, asked Murray to soften into the bridle and keep marching forward (weirdly, he was capable of this), and then move into the trot with minimal fuss.  Since I was in the jump saddle I practiced a little two point, but felt weirdly slippery and insecure in the tack.  I guess that’s what I get for not riding for two weeks?  I let him stretch out at the canter and blessedly (thank you, pony gods) he did not buck or kick me out of the tack.

lunge01I’m feeling sooooooo reasonable tonight!

Murray got a little tense in the corners of the arena that had stuff in them, but he did pretty well when I pushed him off my inside leg to ask for more bend and more give.  He was falling over his right shoulder also, but that’s nothing new.  I focused on twisting my body along with his bend to help control his right shoulder, and while it wasn’t perfect, it helped.  Cantering right he kept breaking into the trot when I asked him to sit  a little more on his hocks, so I didn’t ask too much.

We were sharing the arena with one baby horse, who was being pretty good but had one minor meltdown when she kicked a clod of dirt against the wall.  Murray scooted and shuffled after the baby’s freakout, but got his ish back together really well.  I did one spiral in-out in each direction trying really, really hard and failing to keep Murray straight while we did it.  I just want the neck bend, let me have the neck bend! PLEASE.  I am an inside rein addict.  Ah well – just another thing to work on!

Since it was already 37 when I got back to the barn, I put Murray’s medium weight purple blanket on.  Okay, that’s a lie.  I put it on to admire the purpleness.  It looks kinda weird but I think it was the right choice (also, hopefully it will not rub his shoulders, but looking at the picture I think it will rub his hips goddamnit).

img_20170105_182202

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.

there’s no need to be a dick about it

Last week I mentioned that my rides were full of revelation, dusted with glimpses of glory, and glistening with the ghosts of my past bursting with hidden potential!!  Even if only one of those four three things is true, it was a week filled with learning. And one of the most impactful revelations, as I was asking Murray to use his body in more correct and possibly slightly uncomfortable ways, was that there’s no need to be a dick about it.

dressage1No need to be a dick about it, right Murray?

When Murray is tense and not working over his back he isn’t doing it for no reason — there’s legitimate tension and fear there that we need to work through.  And that progress is going to come slowly, as Murray gains confidence in the new way I’m asking him to move and carry himself.  He’s not going to develop a springier trot with suspension by running away from scary lions (or my whip), and he’s not going to lean into the bridle and stay steady in the connection if he thinks that those lions are possibly going to leap out at him from every corner.

And that’s all fine.  We will never make progress if we don’t push outside of our comfort zone.  But I don’t need to be a dick about it.  I have a prefrontal cortex and the ability to understand that deliberate practice and careful repetition will make us better, stronger, and more capable.  Murray has a brain that is smaller than one of his testicles would have been, had he been allowed to keep them, and knows that working this way makes him feel funny and isn’t as much fun as, say, rolling in a pasture or napping in his paddock.

Image result for chimp brain vs testicleA chimpanzee’s brain (background) compared to one of its testicles (foreground) – lest you think I was exaggerating earlier

So I get to ask Murray to do things that are hard and uncomfortable, but I only get to do it politely and kindly, and praise him when he does the right thing.  If I were better at riding, I’d ask perfectly, respond perfectly, and then praise him more quickly than I do.  But I’m not (and quite frankly, he’s not so peachy keen about learning himself), so he can deal.  We’ll do hard things and uncomfortable things, and then we’ll take a break — no need to drill, no need to ask at Volume 10 what could have been asked at Volume 2, and no need to nitpick the little things that I feel should have been accomplished by now.

But the same thing goes for him — if he wants me to play nice, he has to put in an honest effort.  Sometimes he’s great; I can feel the confusion leaving his body and we get to a good place using more than time.  And some days, that just doesn’t happen (sometimes that’s okay, but mostly that’s a no go).  He knows that leg on does mean something, and it means that something for more than one disgusting inverted step.

IMG_8830-2

It’s a hard line to walk, and because I generally try not to be an asshole I tend to fall a little far on the side of “that’s okay”.  But we’re tightening everything up this fall, including our cues and our expectations.  An honest effort is all I expect out of both of us — and for both of us to stop being dicks about it.