Friday, April 27, 2012

Vet Check

Just a quick note to record Tuesday's (24/04) vet check:
  • Flu and Tetanus vaccine given.  We're not sure if she had her standard vaccinations as a baby but Marta the vet says that as long as she's healthy there's no reason why at this stage we should give her any more than the annual vaccinations.
  • Manual checkup shows her to have some TMJ, neck and lower back pain and tension, probably brought on in part by the fact that I've started riding her a lot more, for longer periods of time and with more rein contact lately.  Marta recommends lots of massages with long, heavy strokes along the tense areas and plenty of relaxed groundwork to build the muscles she needs to carry me well.  Apparently she still needs to build a lot of muscle in her lower back, croup and quarters.
  • I mentioned her movement was a little wierd sometimes, so the vet took a look at her while she trotted around the roundpen and said that she had some intermittent irregularities in both back legs which she thinks is being caused by the back pain more than anything else.  So more of the same, building muscle and trying to relax all that tension with massage.
  • As far as all external and vital signs go she's AOK and Marta also says her weight condition and feeding regimen is good (I always think she looks skinny and worry she's not getting enough to eat).  So my plan is to do at least a little work every day, even if it's only 20 minutes of walk and trot in the roundpen, and also do a little bodywork every time I groom her.  And start incorporating long trot sessions of at least 5 minutes into our longeing and roundpen routine to build up that muscle.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


The word for "Dressage" in Spanish is "Doma" and it essentially just means "training".  And this is more or less the Spanish horseperson's mindset - the fundamental dressage movements are just part of the basic training that nearly all horses and riders recieve.  As a kid the only "aids" I ever learned were to squeeze, kick and kick harder and dressage was something only extremely fancy people did with their impossibly fancy horses.  I think the fact I'm from a middle class non-horsey family in the South had a lot to do with this perspective and I know a lot has changed in the US horse world in the last 15 or 20 years, but I still get the feeling that dressage over there is viewed as an "advanced" discipline by a lot of people, whereas here it's pretty common to see 8 year olds leg yielding across the ring with their little lesson ponies.

As far as I understand it, the goal in dressage is not to win contests or see who has the fanciest horse but to improve your horse's movements and build fitness, efficiency and flexibility, kind of like equine pilates.  So when the instructor who comes to our barn to give the monthly dressage clinic asked me if I wanted to do the next one with Starbuck I leaped at the chance.

The day of the clinic Starbuck was pretty spooky so I longed her for a fair amount of time before it started using lots of changes of direction and rhythm to get her focussed on me instead of the invisible monsters lurking right outside the arena.  I actually doubted whether to ride her in the clinic or not but I figured it was worth a try and anyway the worst that could happen is I could fall off again (been there, done that!).

The focus for this month's course was on transitions, when the clinic started we gathered round the instructor Daniela and she explained some visual images inspired by Sally Swift's Centered Riding - for downward transitions we should grow both upwards and downwards at the same time and visualize an anchor being dropped from our center of gravity down to the ground, breathing as if a tube linked our nose and mouth all the way down to our toes, sending the air through our entire body.  For upward transitions we should imagine energy coming out of our belly shooting forward and upward diagonally in order to energise our horses.  Then we tacked up and split into groups for the ridden segment.  I only had one other rider in my group - a teenage girl who's been taking lessons for about a year now and was riding one of the old steady lesson geldings,  but since Starbuck was a little spooky that morning I warmed her up under saddle for a good 30 minutes while another group was riding.

When the group before us finished, Daniela started us on an excercise - walking around the ring and stopping completely at every letter.  Starbuck did pretty well except when we got to the scary side of the arena, where she couldn't stop moving her feet.  But all in all not bad.  Then each of us claimed a 20 meter circle to practice stop - walk - trot - walk - stop transitions, always at the same point on the circle.  I thought we were doing OK but Daniela pointed out that Starbuck wasn't bending correctly into the circle and asked for more flexion at the poll.  This was a lot harder since she kept on falling in and my inside leg just wasn't doing the trick, I was especially surprised since she kept on the circle way better at a trot than at a walk.  But Daniela said that the important part was the posture and that tracing a perfect circle was secondary.  It's funny how every instructor you go to says something which is the exact antithesis of what some other instructor has drilled into you.

When I was finally able to keep Starbuck on a mostly round circle with the correct flexion for a full lap we stopped and let her take a little break while Dani gave me some pointers - keep the hands absolutely still (I had been fiddling with the reins) with the inside rein slightly elevated and if I see that my inside leg isn't strong enough to keep her on the circle, shift my weight slightly to the outside.  While we were talking Starbuck let her head down and Dani commented on how that was a signal that she was working well - relaxing and opening her topline "like an umbrella".

Anyhow we changed reins and repeated the exercise and it was just as difficult the second time around, but at least I was able to give her the correct aids instead of just "trying different things" as my great grandmother would say.  In the end though we finally were able to understand each other and she did one circle almost perfectly, without leaning on the bit at all.  Daniela pronounced it a job well done and I promptly hopped off to reward her for her good work.  Daniela praised me for improving my seat and arm position since the last clinic and said that Starbuck has a good attitude and is using herself well for her age and stage of training.

So all in all a great experience and we have some terrific new exercises to add to our repertoire which work on strengthening her topline without putting undue stress on those baby joints of hers!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Good news, bad news

Yesterday I was reminded of the fact that we can never fully let our guard down with young horses, and that no matter how well we think we know our horse, they can always surprise us for better or for worse.  We started the day off early with a group lesson which went very well after the first 15 minutes (this is the time it takes for me to relax and for her to focus), then afterwards I gave her a good brushing out (she worked up some nice sweat during the lesson) and finally I walked her with my friend Belén and her gelding Cancun to a nearby field to let them graze and run free until lunchtime.

I was really pleased with how the day had gone and even got a few compliments on how well she behaved from some of the other ladies in the class.  I specifically remember that at one point when I was talking to them I said that the really nice thing about having trained your horse yourself is that I more or less always know what to expect and that "there's really not a whole lot she can do to surprise me at this point".  If only I had kept my damn mouth shut...

After lunch my friend Virginia and I were doing some poo picking and she decided to leave a bundle of freshly cut green hay in front of Starbuck's stall since it's shadier there.  As she squatted down to leave the hay, Starbuck stuck her head out inquisitively and Virginia decided to blow a raspberry on her nose.  The first time, Starbuck just kind of startled back and then craned her neck down to look again.  So Virginia blew another raspberry, but this time Starbuck lunged toward her with teeth barred and ears back, hitting my friend smack in the face and knocking her backwards.

I was shocked!

So shocked in fact that for a few seconds I was completely paralyzed and couldn't even give Starbuck a good smack to make it clear that biting people IS NOT OK.  After I made sure that she hadn't bitten Virginia's face off, I shooed her out of her stall and let her know that I was not happy with her actions.  I was completely at a lack for what to do, I know that after a few seconds punishment doesn't make any sense but I didn't want her to get the idea that this is something she can EVER EVER EVER repeat.  Virginia's gum was split open by the impact and it bled a little and she has a bump on her forehead too, I feel absolutely terrible about it and keep asking myself how I could have prevented it, or what I would have done if it had been a child or someone I didn't know.

I think this was definitely a dominance play of "I don't like that, get out of my face", and I've noticed her acting more dominant with other horses too.  So apart from getting her really sacked out all over her face, I'll be keeping a close eye on her and as soon as she starts getting even the slightest bit pushy or tetchy with any humans at all I'm gonna be on her like white on rice (that phrase isn't racist.  I checked).  For instance today I was feeling up her little udders which I know for a fact she doesn't like and she just lifted up her leg as in "keep doing that and I'm gonna kick out" which I'm usually patient with as long as she doesn't actually kick, but today she got a slap on the hip and a sharp word.  I'm also conniving with Marina the barn owner to stick her in a paddock one of these days with the most dominant horses at the stable, so she recognizes that her real place in the pecking order is NOT as the boss of everyone but me.

Anyhow in the end I think it's nothing to obsess over as long as I make sure it doesn't happen again, but it is an effective warning that my sweet little filly isn't as sweet as I always think she is and that she can turn nasty in a heartbeat.  And that the only thing I should expect from her is to be constantly surprised.

Do you have any biting stories or advice to share?

Friday, April 20, 2012

More Appy pics

She's starting to get kind of shiny and the black spots are now more extensive... as much as a pain as it is I kind of appreciate this winter shedding business, it's like getting a big present wrapped in ugly shaggy fur instead of wrapping paper and bit by bit, week after week uncovering a layer of fuzz until you finally get to the beautiful gleaming summer horse underneath.

It's motivated me to groom her every day, even if I don't take her out of her paddock and I only have an hour to spend I at least give her a good brushing and pick out her hooves.  Good habits...

Monday, April 16, 2012


When I was a kid I always wanted an Appaloosa.  Now I can't for the life of me fathom why.  I know that I had read as a child that they were difficult to handle and were prone to having scrawny manes and tails, but I still wanted one more than any other type of horse.  Either an Appaloosa or a bay Arabian.  Goes to show how much things change - these days I can't imagine a horse I would want LESS than an Appaloosa or a bay anything, much less a crazy Arabian.  I think as a youngster the idea of conquering a horse noone else could handle was irresistable to me.

Anyhow last week after brushing Starbuck out really well and seeing her in full sun, I noticed that her winter fur and her summer fur are two completely different colours, giving her a kind of mottled look, not unlike a very strange, black Appaloosa.  So here are the photos of my Appaloosa - Thoroughbred - Zweibrucken filly!
Last week:

This week:

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Horseback Riding Lessons

Even though it's been a whole week I want to write about Starbuck and my first real riding lesson together (last Thursday).  I was a little uneasy about mixing her up with other horses and their riders but when Marina, the barn owner and main instructor, said she was ready I figured that she knows way better than I do.  So I got to the barn a little late especially since I wanted to longe Starbuck before the lesson and had to run and get her and then tack her up in a hurry.  I tried not to rush but it was difficult especially since with all the winter fur she's losing it takes superlong to brush her.  Luckily the other students arrived even later than I did so I was able to get a head start.

When she was all tacked up I took her out to the big arena where the class would be and longed her for a while.  It was pretty warm and at first she was real lazy, but then I took her over to the scary side and she woke right up.  After a few light rebellious bucks which I countered with lots of changes of direction and hindquarter yields and then a few good laps at the trot and the counter, I felt like we were ready to go.  So I hopped on up (I can mount Starbuck from both sides and from the ground, thank you very much, but I try to use a mounting block to ward off backaches and saddle deformation) and joined the rest of the class.

Marina wisely put us behind Rodrigo, one of the old lesson geldings, and we started to make some 20 meter circles around her at a walk.  At first Starbuck thought that this was an invitation to bite him on the butt and tried to follow him too closely, however after a while I was able to keep a safe distance.  When we went into trot, though, it was another story - she got pretty riled and it got harder and harder for me to keep her on a circle and away from Rodrigo.  "Don't focus on her, focus on Rodrigo!" Marina shouted at me and I looked at her like she was crazy.  Surely that would give Starbuck even more naughty ideas about biting his tail, right?  So she elucidated me, "Pick a spot on Rodrigo's rider's back and focus on just following that spot, and let your body do the rest.  If you're not focussed, she can't focus!".

Hmmm.... Sound familiar?  ADD rider leads to ADD horse!

And she was 100% right.  As soon as I started focussing on where I wanted to go (the logo on Rodrigo's rider's t-shirt to be more exact) she settled down, found a good steady rhythm and stopped trying to misbehave.  So much so that Jose Luis, the teenage boy who works here as a stablehand, even said that she looked like she'd been a lesson horse all her life.  Marina laughed and told him it was kind of a backhanded compliment, but my main goal for Starbuck is that she be absolutely comfortable doing everything we do, so in the end it's not so backhanded after all.  In the end we trotted so much that even MY muscles were sore and I was worried about Starbuck, but Marina told me that she's ready to start doing shorter groundwork sessions and longer riding sessions.  She certainly did work extremely well, have some nice foam around the bit and wasn't too sweaty when we finished, and she didn't seem to have a lot of muscle pain the next day.

Such a good girl!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The little girl fell off...

I don't have a lot of time as usual but I definitely wanted to write a brief report just to have a record of our progress - I'm trying to at least jot down anything even slightly resembling a milestone.  So on Sunday I fell off again which is a milestone in itself, but the important part to me is that Sunday was also the first day I rode Starbuck without longeing or roundpenning her first.  Ok, Ok, so in the morning we played with the ball for about 30 minutes and then I showered her and stuck her in the roundpen to eat lunch in a place where she could roll without getting covered in poo.  I mean, it wasn't like I took her straight from her paddock to tack up or anything.  But she had a good few hours between any exercise she might have had in the morning and when I rode her, so I think it counts.

At any rate I was riding her in the big arena and there was lots of crazy going on - little girls shrieking and shaking the arena fence, the retirees running around outside, the lesson horses whinnying to their buddies in the paddock, the kids in the jump class all amped up since it's show season... you get the idea.  When we were on the scary side I apparently thought it was the perfect moment to ask Marina about something completely unrelated.   And surprise, surprise - the second I was no longer focussing on Starbuck, she stopped focussing on me and started focussing on the big scary monsters lurking below the house.  A good lesson for anyone riding a young horse - tune in and stay that way... if you're bored with the ride they will be too and will look for diversion elsewhere.

When the stable handyman came rushing out of the storage shed beneath the house, she not surprisingly spooked and cantered halfway across the arena.  So far so good, but  something triggered a bucking fit (I'm not sure if it was because of my seat banging her back from not being prepared or if it was my hands pulling back on the reins) and I lost my balance.  Luckily I picked my moment well and fell flat on my butt so I was able to bounce right back up!  To calm both of us down before getting back on I hand walked her all over the arena to slow down my heartrate without giving her a "reward" for bucking me off and yielded her hindquarters a couple of times.  Then I mounted back up and finished my ride (although I have to say I chickened out and stayed on the "safe" side).  Next time I have to remember to grab mane and circle, grab mane and circle, grab mane and circle, without leaning too far forward in suspension.

Anyhow that's the story of my 3rd fall off Starbuck... which means I've got 4 more to go (at the very least)!  Although maybe I could start spreading them out some more... ;)

The title of this post btw is an allusion to a song my little sister made up when she was maybe 4 years old and would get scared every time I went to my horseback riding lessons.  Some day I will share it on interwebz, until then you will just have to live in suspense.