Wednesday, August 1, 2018

I've signed MYSELF up for full training

Earlier this year, T was in full training - at a barn 2.5 hours away - to learn changes. Unfortunately, during that time he made huge leaps in his skillset, while I languished at home catching rides where I could. When I brought him back home, we quickly reverted to our old habits and while I could play with some of the new buttons, it was clear I wasn't doing it "right".

Sitting so far right I might slide off to the outside.

Sadly, my old trainer moved back to VA (she comes back for clinics, but that's not enough), so I asked for a recommendation for someone near me. There's a USDF gold medalist about 45 minutes away, and after a couple of lessons I discovered that her teaching style really works for me. I started hauling up for weekly lessons, and when I was gone for a week, he stayed with her and got a few training rides in.

Unless you're doing haunches in on a circle (we weren't), pretty sure that's not where the haunches should be.

And let me tell you, there's nothing like getting on your exceptionally well-schooled horse and have him be like "dafuq, lady?!?!?" to make you realize just how many things you are doing wrong. Stuff that I've known about and worked on  for years, but have never really fixed, like:

  • My horse isn't actually through/over his back. Like pretty much ever.
  • Whichever leg isn't actively working hangs there uselessly like a dead fish. This is a problem when trying to do changes and half pass and TOH a bunch of other things, who knew?
  • Your thighs are actually useful when riding - if you use them.
  • My hands are way too high and have a tendency to cross the crest, not to mention pulling
  • I sit in my right seatbone way harder than my left
  • I let the shoulders and haunches escape, which results in all sorts of things being way harder than they should or altogether impossible
And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

You know you've REALLY lost the outside shoulder when the front feet start to cross over

After my demoralizing - yet incredibly eye-opening - lesson, where my hands would not stay put and I could not prevent T falling out on his right shoulder, I mulled over my options. I work on all these things at home but without mirrors and constant reminders, I quickly fall into my old habits. Taran isn't getting any younger, and he's got this Cushings thing working against him too. Plus, I've never had the time/money/horse/trainer combination where I could really work on me, and... well, right now I do. A little chatting with the ever-supportive husband, plus my trainer, and I decided that there's no time like the present to dive in and make it happen.

Better, but shoulder still too far to the outside.

So I've signed myself up for full training. Five lessons a week, every morning before work at 6 a.m. I'm up about 4:45, quickly dress and get some chai to go, then leave by 5 for my 45 minute drive. I ride, then stuff T full of (sugar-free) cookies and hand him off to the groom for hosing and such, because I have to rush to make it to my 8 a.m. meetings. 

FINALLY, I manage to keep all the body parts together in this one corner. WHEW! Now, about the rest of that circle...

I miss spending barn time, but my riding is improving by leaps and bounds. Every ride is incredibly productive, and because I have constant  reminders, my position and use of my aids are starting to change and stay that way for more than a moment. 

Also the canter is getting better

I can now recognize when body parts aren't where they should be, and am slowly learning how to fix them in less than half a circle. I'm getting a better feel for what "throughness" really is and feels like (it's incredible and T feels like he's 17hh), and have more tools to make it happen, instead of being half-assed about it or giving up entirely and saying it's "good enough". I'm also starting to expect more from myself and T and holding us both more accountable, because someone is holding me more accountable.

I love the downward TX where she's like "whoops, no, BAD RIDER". Bad rider, indeed! No cookie!

Have you ever done full training for yourself? If you could, what would you want to work on most?

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Hacking in Hyde Park

Last week, hubby and I took a little trip to play tourist in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Stockholm, Sweden. On the flight home, we had an overnight layover in London. I've always wanted to go for a hack in Hyde Park, and we managed to squeeze one in early Sunday morning before our flight.

I was a leeetle worried because if you remember, my last hack while on holiday ended up with a nice swim in the Atlantic ocean. I flat-out told the organizer that, and was assured that nothing so exciting would happen. Honestly, I would have been super happy to walk around and take pictures.

We showed up at at the stables at 7:15 am, and almost missed them as we were walking by. They are literally 3 flats that have been converted to a stables, with standing stalls for about 15 horses.

The barn, on a quiet city street with apartments all around. I have no idea how they manage to keep all the hay, bedding, feed, tack, etc. in such a small space, but they do it.

A glimpse inside of the standing stalls, bedded with straw. The horses were all in *excellent* condition, and every other month go off for a holiday at their country location .

I got Clifton. Clifton was awesome and profession selfie-taker.

Hubby's horse was similarly awesome. He would make a great jousting pony!

Ready to go!

Our guide (horse on left) was lovely and took us out on the exceptionally-groomed horse paths.

Horseback selfie.

Happy Hubby!

This is the track where they used to take the carriages on in the 1800s. We had a lovely quiet canter on this track.

Isn't Clifton adorable? I wanted to steal him.

Hubby doing one last canter.

If you're a horse person and happen to be in London, I would HIGHLY recommend a hack in Hyde Park. It's beautiful, it's historic, and the horses are lovely. It's a nice horsey break in an otherwise big, bustling city!

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Taran's opinion of my cr@ppy riding

Taran is usually the most reliable of horses (note: this includes reliably spooking at random things). He does what's asked, mostly without protest. Sure, sometime he doesn't put 110% effort in, and you do have to manufacture a lot of energy, but he's generally an amicable fellow.

I mean, this is OK

Until now. Now, at 16, he's learned lead changes. Granted, they are still green, but he understands the concept and he knows the aids for them. He *also* knows that I might ask for a change at any time in the canter, and since he generally tries to please his rider, he's trying to figure out when I'm asking for a change and when I'm not.

T: You're doing something weird with your body so I'll try something weird too

The problem, according to T, is that sometimes it's impossible to tell if I'm asking for a lead change or merely sitting there awkwardly in a way that maaaaybe could be interpreted as asking for a lead change, if you're an overachiever and trying to figure out what your rider wants. Let's be honest - until recently, I've asked for a canter lead and then sort of let my legs do their own thing until further notice. I'm particularly bad about letting my outside leg hang like a dead fish while pulling on the inside rein too much, overbending his neck. But I had to fix that habit when we started doing the 20 m counter-canter serpentine in 2-3, because you really have to make it clear that you want your horse to keep the lead in the cc.

He's sitting so well and looks so fanc...

....errrr, never mind.

Of course, T didn't know about flying changes back then, so at worst I'd pull too much and get him overbent and a bit stuck, and he'd fall behind my leg and trot. But now... now, all those contortions I did or did not do with my body have a whole new meaning, and any one of them might mean I want him to change leads.

For example, I'm a pro at overbending T to the left, and letting his shoulders fall to the outside. What I need to do is use more right rein and push his shoulders a titch left, so that he stands up and is straight. But if I don't commit with my outside rein, it's ever so easy for him to pop his shoulder and toss in a change, or at least try to fake one.

Over bent with the shoulder out. Or maybe I'm doing this on purpose because I want him to change leads, who knows? 

I've also managed to break our left lead canter depart. If I get him straight on the right rein at the walk, and then ask for the canter, my left hip tends to roll forward instead of back... which moves my right hip back and presto, that's a right canter lead. Same problem in the canter... if I allow my left hip to get forward, my left canter aids are no longer clear, and he's suddenly questioning my riding ability and bouncing around in preparation for a change.

Boink boink boink

And heaven help me if I accidentally take my butt out of the saddle. I struggle to sit all three beats of the canter sometimes, and even just one beat out of the saddle and he can drop behind my leg and start bouncing. This is especially bad because I'm still in the stage of over-preparing for the change, so I tend to get him a bit too slow and up-and-down, which makes it hard to stay in the saddle. It's all connected, I tell you.


So, moral of the story. If your horse knows how to change, you'd better make DAMN sure you've got your leg, seat bones, reins, and other body parts all in their proper places at all times, because if you don't and your horse judges your riding like mine does, you too could be doing this doinkadoink maneuver pretty much anywhere. It just goes to show that all those "basics" like straightness and connection and rhythm and forward off the leg never, ever leave you. They just keep getting refined to the Nth degree so that you can perform progressively more challenging movements.

If you've done flying changes, what did you find to be the hardest thing about them? If not, what are you struggling most with in the canter right now and what are your tips for improving?

We did eventually get one on the aids, even if I did let my reins get long and him get a little down in front so that it's a half-stride late behind. Work in progress for sure!

Monday, June 18, 2018

Mutual grooming - any Haflinger will do!

Taran LOVES to be groomed. He always seems to be super itchy, especially under his mane. It's not from bug bites (don't hate me, but we have hardly any bugs here), and it doesn't seem to be from dry skin (flax and flax oil don't help) or allergies (he's itchy year-round and anti-allergy/microbial shampoos don't help), he's just ITCHY. And if there's not a handy human with a curry around, or a nice scratchy tree to be found, Taran recruits a Haflinger.

Paddy is generally his favorite groomer, I think because they've known each other the longest. They'll stand shoulder-to-shoulder and go after all sorts of spots, generally for 15-20 minutes (unless I disturb them with my annoying picture-taking).

Geez, lady, we're busy here.

Griffy will also do if Paddy's busy. I've watched T push Griffy off the hay and then shove himself in front of Griffy's face, pretty much demanding to be groomed. T will sometimes nip Griffy on the leg - apparently he doesn't always do it right? - and then they'll switch sides or Griffy will groom a new spot. T is very clearly in charge of those interactions.

You must groom me now.

Right there is good.

Recently, we've been horse-sitting a spare Haffie, named Art. T and Art literally gave each other one "Hi My Name Is" sniff over a gate, and then started grooming. Geez, T, way to make an impression. Since then, they'll go at it any chance they get.

No T, we cannot keep this one even if he's an excellent grooming buddy.

I did a little digging about mutual grooming, but there doesn't seem to be a lot of scientific research out there. Apparently horses that groom each other are generally close in herd status, and do it to cement herd bonds. According to Kimura's (1998) study of free-ranging horses, aggressive-submissive behavior (i.e. T nipping Griffy) can sometimes be seen and used to determine herd status. However, mutual grooming is based on the bonds between individuals, not social rank. This is interesting because I've never EVER seen Reddums engage in grooming with anyone, even T, and Reddums has always been kind of a loner.

Sigurjonsdottir et al (2003) found that in a mixed herd without a stallion, rank was significantly correlated with age, which is true in our herd (but hasn't always been). Christensen et al (2002) found that young stallions who were boxed alone for 9 months tended to significantly increase the level of mutual grooming and play behavior when returned to a herd. The authors suggested this was a "rebound effect", and may be what I'm seeing with Taran since he was not turned out with other horses when at the trainer's.

I'll scratch your butt, you scratch mine.

What amazes me most about these grooming sessions is that somehow each horse knows where the other one wants to be groomed. There has apparently been some study of facial expressions to see if it's possible to determine how they communicate this, but so far nothing conclusive.

Has anyone studied why horses lick other horses? Because someone probably should, and I volunteer T as the number one subject of study.

Does your horse have a grooming buddy, or more than one? Do they try to groom you, or ask you to spend extra time on certain itchy spots when you're grooming?

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Cantering for days

At some point in the last year, most of my rides transitioned from walk/trot with some canter thrown in, to mostly canter with a little trot and a lot of walk breaks. I’m not entirely sure when that happened, but all of the sudden canter became something I was confident about - and of course, all the tough stuff we’re working on right now is at the canter. 

Our trot warm-up is pretty quick these days. Some walk-trot-halt-trot transitions to get him quick off my leg and a little more up in front, then some shallow leg yields to get him moving his body and stepping up. I’ve found that cantering earlier in the warmup is better for loosening his back, so we do a few 20 meter canter circles each direction. After a little walk break, we might do some shoulder in and haunches in at the trot, a couple of 8-10 meter voltes, and maybe a few trot half-passes, mostly so I can work on setting him up correctly in the corner. If I don’t set it up right, I just end up getting in T’s way, but if I’m correct with bend and balanced, he can almost do the Grand Prix trot half-pass. And then… the rest of our ride is canter work. 

Sometimes my horse only has three legs, which explains a lot.

And there is SO MUCH to work on. I am endlessly trying to polish our walk-canter transitions, because while T is great at them, I inevitably forget some body part of mine and then it takes me two strides to reorganize. I do a lot of canter-walk-canter-walk-canter transitions on the quarter line, focusing on straightness and prompt transitions (spoiler alert, this shit is hard and we look drunk, I hate mirrors because they don’t lie). We spend a lot of time trying to improve the jump and quality of the canter, doing things like renvers, leg yield, spiral in and out, to help his strength and ability to sit. 

And there is definitely more sit!

Then there’s stuff like canter squares, where I turn his shoulders for two strides in each corner. When I get it right, I can really feel him balance back and his shoulders get super light and it's so easy for him... and when I don't, I'm basically hauling him around the turn.

Our problems have a lot to do with me still not actually keeping my butt in the saddle for all three beats of the canter, but I'm getting better.

We work on cantering on the spot (ish, very ish), lots of forward-and-back… there are an endless number of exercises to use. I find it mentally challenging to process what’s happing under me and choosing the right exercise to improve it when I’m on my own – in lessons I can be more of a puppet and rely on my trainer to help me figure it out. 

Like here I have lost his shoulders to the outside and I'm bending him too much with the inside rein. I need a more solid outside rein and a titch of outside thigh to ask his shoulders to stand up under his body. 

And of course, working on the changes. That’s another post in of itself, because we’re both working on the change and working on NOT changing… which seems to be just as challenging! But we’re making progress, and for a sixteen year old horse that just started learning changes in January, it's pretty awesome.

Not a change, but you can see that his inside hind is on the ground and the outside front is still in motion... a year ago he was landing outside front first. The canter CAN be improved, but it takes time! 

Oddly enough, I don’t spend a lot of time working on medium or extended gaits any more. When I do, it’s more of a check to make sure he remembers how to do them. It seems that because we’ve been working so much on carrying and pushing power, when I actually ask for a medium gait, he’s up in his shoulders and absolutely pushing me out of the saddle from behind. I just have to keep my leg on, help him with balance if he needs it, and otherwise stay out of his way (hahahaohmygodthisissohard). It is incredibly cool to see how much his medium gaits have improved - not because we've been explicitly working on medium gaits, but because he’s gotten so much stronger.

How much of your ride do you spend at each gait?

Monday, June 11, 2018

When in Mexico, never trust a Dutchman who knows a “scenic shortcut”

This weekend, I joined the husband on a geological field trip down in Mexico. For the past 10 years or so, he’s been studying the Chicxulub impact crater - the one that killed the dinosaurs 66.0 million years ago (he made me write the “point zero” when he reviewed this). He and a number of colleagues, including a Dutchman who wrote one of the original papers on the crater, were planning to collect rock samples at several sites in the Yucatan for additional analysis. My goal was to tag along with the scientists while eating as much ceviche and drinking as many margaritas as I could, and pretend to understand when they talked about accretionary lapilli and megabreccia and whatever other rock terms they use.

The first day was pretty cool – we went to three different outcrops (ok they were road cuts) and gathered samples. I helped by asking dumb questions about rocks that were different colors. The second day we swam in a crystal-clear lagoon with stromatolites (big rock-looking things that are actually made from some of the oldest life forms on earth) and drove to Palenque, which is a huge Mayan city-ruin. The third day, we toured the city (wow, 1800+ buildings with 8000 residents at its peak), and then we headed to the last outcrop. And that’s when the fun began.


Burial chamber at Palenque

View of the city from the top of the observation tower

As our little caravan of three rental cars turned off the somewhat questionable (yet perfectly serviceable) paved road onto a dirt road, I remarked to the hubs that perhaps our fearless Dutch leader knew a shortcut. Fifteen minutes later, we began to wonder if perhaps we’d agreed too hastily when he had casually mentioned that the shortcut he knew was “paved,” because we hadn’t seen a scrap of pavement yet. 

And then we got to the first “bridge”.

This is not actually the first bridge, this bridge is much nicer. There aren't any pictures of the first bridge because I had my hands over my eyes, but imagine this bridge with no railings and half as wide. You're welcome. 

Sure, let's just cross a stream here

The guys on the right are riding horses, which is totally a legit mode of transportation

Look how NICE and SAFE this bridge looks (in comparison to the first one)

Look! A tiny bit of pavement! We were super excited to see this.

We also drove through a jungle

In the .02 seconds that hubby wasn't desperately gripping the steering wheel, we did have some nice views. And then we hit a car-sized pothole.

That's a goat

I'm sure there's plenty of room here (like a whole inch). The passenger in the car in front of us opened the door to make sure they weren't about to drive off the 8' cliff on the right. Eeek.

In comparison this is practically a two-lane highway.

OMG we've never been so glad to see pavement in our lives.

Two solid hours of dodging car-sized potholes, axle-breaking potholes, loose rocks, scraping the undercarriage, really wishing we'd had a Jeep Wrangler, and hanging on for dear life while going 20 kmph, and we made it back to pavement. Another 30 minutes' driving took us to the nearest town (which is not on any of the maps we had), where we got lunch that sadly didn't include a beer. Then it was a further hour's drive to the outcrop, where we all piled out, climbed a bunch of rocks, and chipped a bunch of chunks to take back.

Um, rocks? But really important ones. 

Apparently they are more interesting under a hand lens.

Anyway, we survived our expedition, even after navi-guessing back to the main road since we had no cell service and GPS was sketchy (definitely Type 2 fun omg never again thx). On the bright side, I ate really good ceviche every night, and drank a whole lot of margaritas. Hubby got his samples, so I'd call it a success! 

OMG so much ceviche...

Our poor rental Jetta though... I'm pretty sure it needs therapy and is never going to want to leave the parking lot again.