Friday, July 3, 2020

Training Level For Life?

Despite my many attempts and setbacks, I have still yet to show above training level.

I can make a lot of excuses. Hip surgery, some serious tightness and loss of flexibility post surgery, a lot of test anxiety, and a semi feral horse.

But in the end they are just excuses.

Semi Feral Horse Looking Crabby

Before the most recent accident with Chili, I had started taking lessons with a local dressage instructor. One, I needed an instructor in the area that would travel to my barn and two, sometimes you need things expressed in a different way.

This instructor loves spicy, little opinionated horses and that's pretty much what this semi feral beasty is. An athletic overthinker who ends up running the show. What became evident with my first few lessons was a few major takeaways:

  • The basic principles of training level tests are not conducive to an anticipatory, overthinking horse
  • The more "complicated" concepts that were introduced in my lessons like shoulder in, haunches in, and ten meter circles, the more rhythm and relaxation we achieved.
  • Making the horse think also relaxed my own body. I had to think more about the movement and what I needed to do as a rider and less on predicting my horse was going to anticipate, jig, canter early, spook, or any other number of events
  • My horse that I felt was always running in the canter, wasn't really running. Once I started asking her to carry her head up and out of a training level frame, I was told to keep asking more from her canter. Suddenly, I found her back would lift, I would have a sweet spot to sit, and there was a lot more power. I had always confused running with quick, rather than I was letting her essentially dump on her forehand. I just didn't have the tools to fix it at the time.

So I suppose my major takeaway that when we conquer our current injury, we have our sights set on first or second level. This little semi feral is too busy thinking in our tests. I am too busy thinking about her thinking.

In the end, we are that naughty child in the classroom who acts out because they are bored.

So here's setting our goal of a first or second level debut when this pandemic settles down. Let's skip this anxiety, keep our schooling goals high, and get out of this low bar of training level for life that I had set.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

In Memory of Alex

How do you ever sum up the life of an amazing friend?

Simply you cannot.

1989 to 2020

How to summarize the impact a horse had on so many people in this time and especially me.

While I have failed to adequately blog for a number of years, I feel compelled to share the story of Alex and how he touched my life.

I first met Alex in 2006 at an auction at my university. I had originally conspired with friends to purchase one or two nice lesson horses to donate to the summer camp I worked for as a wrangler.

I had spoken to one of my equine professors and she went over a few horses that would be for sale that she thought would be a good fit. Alex, despite his charming good looks, was not on that list.

Alex in 2006, still with the auction number on his rump

But, as it was, I loved Arabians and Alex had no other bids. For a couple hundred bucks,Alex was purchased. I had no business buying a horse, nor keeping him, so the  camp picked him up.

Over the next ten years, Alex found himself as an amazing camp horse. I have so many stories that maybe I will continue to tell as I remember.

He was not a horse for everyone. While he was safe and not prone to misbehavior, he was forward. He had obviously had a good deal of hunter pleasure and basic dressage type training on him and so if someone was just balancing on his mouth, stopping could occasionally be optional.

But he was still a good boy. I often used him for special events as he was happy to be alone in front of an audience of four hundred kids and not even care. The camp would have theme weeks and often there were "bandits" coming into camp, demanding some or another. A chase on horseback would ensue (as seen above).

One year I was the bandit (in the above photos, I am such a classy bandit wearing the pink hankerchief).

Another time, it was my birthday and I was chasing the bandit across the parade grounds. I stupidly didn't plan my route, looked down as I was hand galloping in front of the children and realized there was a rock wall in front of me. I had visions of being lawn darted in front of an audience, but Alex neatly picked his knees up, jumped, ears up, and continued the chase. He knew his role to play in this little theater.

I also liked to use him to go through the sections in camp to wake the campers up since he was good natured and not prone to startling. One morning he proceeded to stick his head into the cabin and several tents. I can only imagine what those kids thought when they woke up a "neigh-bor" that was a little too close.

One of my favorite memories of him at camp was while an advanced equestrian camper was trying to learn how to do flying lead changes. Alex was absolutely schooled in flying changes and loved swapping leads, often a little too much.

I sent the gal down and asked her to do one flying change on the way down and one on the way back. As she held the reins and shifted her weight, a few too many times, Alex was merrily skipping along and changed leads five or six times. He never held a grudge as that poor kid finally figured out how to cue him correctly.

As Alex closed into his middle 20s, he started having issues holding weight at camp. I tried to figure out where he should go next. He was still enthusiastic, absolutely sound, and had never been lame a day in his life.

At this point, I had started getting involved in supporting a therapeutic riding program. What if Alex could become a therapy horse?

Alex took it like a duck to water. Nothing rattled him whatsoever about the usual therapy adventures of playing basketball off his back, getting objects out of the mailbox, hanging rings off his ears, or any of the other things we subjected him to.

He could carefully ignore excessive cues from his rider and listen to his handler, but then with an independent rider, would totally be game to teach a rider flying lead changes or the art of slowing down his fast trot into an acceptable western jog.

I have always loved the feeling of his gallop. He was a fast horse and in another life would have been an incredible endurance horse. He was difficult to tire out and even four or five hours in the saddle wouldn't slow him down.

A few years ago, while he was a therapy horse, I took a friend out into the hay fields riding. I loved the feeling of just letting him go and gallop, his hooves pounding the earth. I knew it brought joy to his heart. I never had to encourage him to go as he just loved to go. For those few brief moments, it brought us back ten years earlier to his younger years at the summer camp. Sky, rider, horse, Earth, all interconnected.

A couple of years ago, I nominated Alex for the Wisconsin Arabian Horse Association Ambassador Award. I felt that Alex truly was an amazing ambassador for the Arabian. In his years of service, he had introduced thousands of people to riding a horse. He had been a 4H horse, a university lesson horse, a camp horse and lesson horse, trail horse extraordinaire, therapy horse, and friend.

He was solid, dependable, strong, and sound.

I was so pleased when Alex won the award and was presented at a rated Arabian show and received his custom leather halter. I happily took the couple of photos seen above.

2020 has been a rough year for so many of us. I have been laying low and unfortunately putting off so many visits with friends and family. I do feel badly that I didn't have the chance to hug Alex one last time and let him know that I loved him.

His fifteen years of friendship didn't go unnoticed.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

The Accident

The last few months have certainly brought change and stress to many of us. The pandemic, riots, protests, strange weather, and more.

In April, Chili had an accident which has left a lot more uncertainty into our daily life.

The story from what I've been able to piece together goes something like this. Chili was wearing a turnout blanket due to the crazy Midwest weather. She was turned out in a small drylot which was split in half with round panels and a walk through gate. Perhaps she decided to itch up on the gate. Who knows. But one of the pins that holds the panels together went through piping on the edge of her blanket and she got caught. She was apparently pretty calm about it at that point and time, but when someone noticed she was stuck, they jumped into action. Unfortunately, this startled her and she set back.

Well, the panels weren't anchored to much very solid and flipped up over and top of her. I do think it is a fairly typical horse response by this point to bolt if one is wearing a gate after something jumped over a fence at you.

Unfortunately the next fence in question was high tensile wire, which she hit and broke. Fortunately, it didn't severely lacerate anything.

I came out about forty-five minutes after the initial accident and she just looked upset and sore. She was in her stall and then she just started looking even more lame and was hopping on three legs. I may have cried at that point and called the vet out.

She was pretty bruised. A big hematoma on her neck and wire marks where she hit the high tensile. Scrapes on her hind legs where she must have kicked off the round pen panels. She was lame.

The original verdict was to just give her time to rehab and heal. Unfortunately, as of this point, she still isn't quite sound. A few vet visits later and there is still nagging lameness and a very sore pelvis. She has a few white hairs that have grown in over her croup which I can only imagine came from the trauma of the panels.

The current game plan is to start her back lightly under saddle with an emphasis on trying to mobilize the pelvis to see if favoring one side for a couple months created more of a mechanical issue, rather than a pain related issue. The vet also suggested additional chiropractic and/or accupuncture work.

I am also planning on adding in some PEMF sessions and whatever else I can scrounge up. At this point, I don't think it can hurt.

It's been quite an interesting adventure so far. Some horses just seem to make poor life choices.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Balmoral Park

In September, I had the chance to attend Arabian Sport Horse Nationals.

I have qualified in the past previously, but this time it was actually within reach. It was held at Balmoral Park in Crete, Illinois.

One of my favorite parts about this venue was the immense history and feel to the facility. Everywhere you looked there was remnants of the rich history of Standardbred and Thoroughbred racing.

The finish post line still stood and was easily visible in the large, main show arena. The winner's circle was also easily visible through the gorgeous large glass windows.

My husband and I, along with a few friends wandered through some not used, dusty sections of the facility and found our way into the expensive boxes and luxury portions of the facility. There, we discovered some lovely artwork, stunning furniture, and history gone by.

I am glad I had the chance to take the impromptu tour and talk to some of the workers and look around the back hallways and rooms at Balmoral. The workers were very sweet and welcomed me to look anywhere I wanted as I took a few photos as memories. The facility has since been sold by the HITS company, so who knows what the next reincarnation of this place will bring.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Strong Hands, Good Hands

I have often been told I have a strong handshake. I always thought that was a bit of a strange thing. What's there to a handshake besides matching the strength of the other person's grip?

At a lesson the other day that I had with a masterful dressage judge, SK, I realized that there is much to take from a strong handshake to change it into a good handshake, and subsequently a good feel of the reins.

The horse I was borrowing for the lesson was a very sweet, pony-ish Arabian/German Riding Pony cross. Good natured, but a bit of a bully with rooting or trying to pull the reins at a stop and just being heavy and a fuss at times.

I had always been told to not let an educated horse be a pulling by pushing, pulling, or rooting around to evade contact, but to be honest, I had never been told solutions on how to stop and not engage in a game of tug-off-war.

When pony would put his head up, she had me raise my hands and widen them. Her point was that it takes too much time to shorten the reins to correct him when he was being a pony, but raising and putting hands wider can be done the moment he begins to test.

Then she noticed my wrists and I learned that apparently my entire life has been a lie. ;)
My joints are all hypermobile and consequently I hold a lot of tension in various places. Apparently, I hold the reins by clenching my wrist and this puts a strong feel on the reins. I had never been told this by any instructor through the years. SK called me over and then spent a good ten minutes of gently gripping my hands to relax my wrist and to hold her hand in a gentle grip to achieve a pressure of 1 or 2, instead of the "10" level I started with.

She then moved to holding the reins by the horse's bit and having me feel what a one or two feels while holding the reins with my fingers and not by tightening my wrists.

I seriously had no idea.

Mind blown.

Photo of SFF to break up all the text

I'm sure elementary to some, but in a sport where people say feel is everything and there is this ambigious desire to develop feel, I had never had someone notice that the way I inappropriately hold tension effected the way horses carried themselves for me.

Off I then went, walk, trot, and canter and wouldn't you know that ponyboy was so much incredibly softer and swinging through his back. The walk developed more ground cover and the trot more impulsion. I was a little nervous when she asked me to canter since I had just established that I couldn't hold the reins properly, but she was quiet. I did as she asked and then she asked me to bring him down. Her commentary was that I had become an entirely different rider in the canter compared to the walk and even the trot.

So while I feel humbled about one of the most elementary things in riding, if I can slowly develop this feel, then it will be money well spent to learn from her again.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

2019: A Recap

2019: The Quick Recap

I miss blogging and I miss writing down the revelations I learn along the way. I also think I need to leave traditional social media and return to more blogs to remove myself from some of the overwhelming negativity.

In 2019, I decided to officially start a business. It has been fine, but let's say I am not quitting my day job as a microbiologist anytime soon.

In April, I had a chance to ride with Jec Ballou. I find her exercises to loosen and supple a horse very insightful and she seems just like a wonderful and personable individual. At one point, she said my horse had a 10 canter. If only we could keep that every day!

Riding with Jec in 2016 at a large equine expo

Unfortunately, shortly after that, I scratched a dressage show where I was to show to Tom Poulin. I had been looking forward to that opportunity, but Chili wasn't quite right. The farrier found an abscess, but then it was still lingering. I ended up showing my coach's Morgan stallion to Mr. Poulin instead and earned a respectable score in training level, despite once again, forgetting the pattern and setting the horse up poorly at times.

Isn't he just the cutest Morgan expression?
In July, I ended up taking Chili to another vet for a second opinion. She had her stifles injected, went back into work, and was diagnoses with upward fixation of the patellas, partially due to being stalled and not having enough exercised while being turned out. I started seeing the "catching" of the stifle and the lameness so I stopped any work at all and ultimately made it worse.

Arabian Sport Horse Nationals was to be held in the Chicago area in September which is within driving distance of where I live. We were qualified from 2018 scores. I decided to go ahead and not enter undersaddle classes (sport horse under saddle or dressage) since I wasn't keen on spending $200+ on a class that with my riding anxiety would probably not turn out well. ;)

I ended up entering Chili in four classes in hand. My friend who often shows with me was to show two classes and I would have the other two classes. Short recap is that all four classes were successful. We placed 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 7th against the best purebred mares in the nation. The other horses were exceptional horses and our team did well in both the amateur and open classes. She was the only purebred mare to place in all of her in-hand classes (hunter and dressage type).

Hunter type in hand

Meanwhile, I began having significantly more tightness and pain in my hip that I had surgery on. More frustration under saddle and my horse was a bit more of a hot tamale to ride and pretty much convinced that barn cats that pop out of the mounting blocks are mountain lions ready to eat her.

So 2019 in a nutshell! Onward and upwards to this 2020 adventure.

Friday, December 28, 2018

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
Another perspective from a horse show volunteer and exhibitor

In this day and age, showing horses is expensive. Everyone I know is trying to make money last and to do more with less.  I am a millennial and I was raised by someone that knew how to stretch every dollar. When I was fortunate to begin to show horses as a young adult, I just didn't understand why horse shows were so expensive.

It wasn't until I began volunteering, not just at the shows, but serving on committees and looking at budgets to get an in depth understanding of some of  the issues currently plaguing horse shows today.

The bad: one of the most discouraging things with hosting horse shows is the ever rising expenses, coupled with the decreasing number of volunteers. For those that have not yet volunteered on a show committee, here are some of the expenses for an open show: ribbons, insurance, judge, facility, food and drinks, shavings, office staff and supplies, announcer, and prizes. If hosting a rated show, the costs skyrocket supporting all of the previous and then adding in steward costs, USEF and drug testing costs, breed or discipline fees, and much more. One thing I have noticed in recent years is that positions that a show used to have volunteers to support some of the key positions necessary for a show including a gate and paddock manager, announcer, and barn manager. However, this is no longer realistic at many shows. Each year there are fewer volunteers, increasing the burden on the remaining few.

How do shows and committees encourage the increase in volunteers? I have heard suggestions of reaching out to 4H and pony clubs. Every committee I know has done so with very little yield. Where are the people that used to volunteer between classes or on days they did not show? They no longer exist.  One show I know tried to make it easier for club members to see what type of volunteers were needed by inputting everything online and members could just click and sign up for a four hour shift. Unfortunately, there was little response and there were a large number of volunteers that did not show up to assist at the show.

There has also been suggestions for financial incentives for volunteers in terms of payment or gift cards given for shifts worked. Has anyone seen this increase volunteerism? I have seen it tried a few times without much success, but I would be curious if there needs to be a better system created to ensure participation.  However, with most shows barely breaking even or running a financial negative, I am wary of increasing expenditures without a good promise of success.

The good: in spite of all this negativity, I have seen so many positive things. I have seen a small group of people that continue to give so much to keep clubs and shows going. These workhorses are the backbone of these little clubs and committees and deserve an immense amount of thanks. Behind every small open show are some exhausted volunteers that have given up a large amount of time to ensure participants can enjoy some quality time with their horses.

The ugly: shows and clubs are dying out by the minute. Many are in precarious situations. I have personally seen many profitable shows struggling to break even, despite slashing budgets and trying to save a dollar in every possible way. As shows raise costs to try and break even, attendance declines. Volunteers decline and then show expenses rise. The end is in sight for many of these events without some kind of drastic change.

I believe that these shows and clubs can be saved if more individuals cared. Investments need to be made with time and sponsorships. Additional volunteers are needed to step up to ease the burden on the few that remain. If more members joined clubs and the committees, they could look at the budgets, offer suggestions, and perhaps, save these dwindling clubs and shows.