Thursday, May 31, 2012

Cristo de la Luz

Although I could probably write a book about it, in the interest of publishing sooner and boring less people I just wanted to jot down some memories from the two-day trail ride this past weekend in the Sierra de Gredos with Gredos Ecuestre, which was an amazing experience I hope to repeat sooner than later.  The first day I mostly took videos which as usual I've been too lazy to edit and upload, which is why there are less photos then on the second day.  When I have the video I'll be sure to publish it here too.

1st day:

Starting out the day with jokes and hugs between long-absent friends.  Finding inner peace while watching the gorgeous panoramas of the Sierra de Gredos come in and out of view as we started on our journey and getting that familiar rush from the first canter of the day.  Hearing only our horses’ hoof falls in silent primeval forests, trusting our mounts to find their way up mountainsides through the brush when downed trees blocked our path and sweating our way down steep rocky descents.  Spying the moss-covered “witch’s cabin” through the trees and overgrown ferns and looking in vain for “the witch”, an old lady who has lived on that mountainside all her life and never goes into town.  Stopping for a delicious home-cooked lunch of green beans, pasta salad and lamb stew topped off with lemon mousse and a home-made digestif for desert in a shady pine grove while the horses rested nearby looking like a herd of wild mustangs grazing in the forest.

Riding down a tree lined grass covered boulevard and through tiny streets winding alongside a mountain stream in Lanzahita on the way to where the horses spent the night.  Earning the confidence of and playing with the month-old blue-eyed palomino filly at Miguel’s finca, sharing an amazing dinner with too many things to mention cooked by his wife and finishing the day with a slightly tipsy sing-along before collapsing into our beds.

2nd day:

Sipping our morning coffee surrounded by the horses in a sun-drenched field. As more and more people joined the Romería we suffered some equine hysterics at the water-trough to see which horse got to drink first, followed by a fun round of spooks as we were overtaken by other riders, donkey carts, wagons pulled by tractors blasting flamenco music, horse-drawn carriages, dirtbikes and even a few 4x4s, all toting festive Spaniards dressed to the nines in their traditional costumes.

The first gallop of the day across an uphill cattle field, letting the horses blow off some steam.  Ricardo’s horse Rif getting one of his hooves caught up in some recklessly discarded barbed wire and luckily standing still for Ricardo to unwind it.  Standing on a hill above Hontanares watching folks canter into town with crowds lining the entire length of the town streets and applauding each group of riders.

Finally taking a deep breath and cueing Lince to canter when it was my group’s turn and being so pleasantly surprised at his self-control in this crazy situation that I was able to relax and enjoy our entrance.  Hearing several people shout out “Vamos chicas!” – “You go girls!” as Ana and I cantered by and feeling a glow and happiness that actually brought tears of joy to my eyes as we cooled down the horses walking through town.

Crossing the Tiétar river with the water so deep that my feet got wet and being so grateful that for once Lince didn’t want to take a swim with me, then enjoying a lazy picnic lunch of croquettes, tortilla española and chilly salmorejo in good company on its sandy banks.

One last thrilling canter up the mountainside and finally the return to La Parra.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


After a solid ride on Saturday where Starbuck ended up so relaxed her muscles were like jello (first time ever, I was so very pleased!!!), on Sunday she was just absolutely crazy and spooky and by the time we did a enough groundwork to get her listening to me she was pretty tuckered out so I decided to do a lesson on Rodrigo, one of Marina's lesson geldings - it was fun fun fun!!!  Cantering around the arena without a care in the world, letting go of the reins and stirrups to do some Centered Riding exercises, even trotting over some low jumps... I think a little vacation from "filly-seat" was just what I needed, and I'll get more this weekend at a two day ride in Gredos.

But it's also got me fired up about working more and more with Starbuck, since what I really want is to be able to do all of this with her!  So I've found some videos which really inspire me in some of my (so far) chosen disciplines, which will give the rest of you an idea of what I eventually want to achieve with her and keep me focussed on what I need to be working on to get there.

Groundwork / Natural Horsemanship:

Cross country jumping:


Trail Riding / Agility:

Just Plain Fun:

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Not of this world

Wednesday evening lesson report - My husband Sergio came along with me to take pictures and video, as you can see above.  It was interesting afterward to hear his point of view, especially since he doesn't know (or care) much about horses.  "She seemed like she was not of this world" was his strangely poetic reply when I asked him what he thought of us.

Here's the mise en scene: after a couple of weeks of summer-like temperatures and blazing sun, yesterday we had clouds, a fresh sea breeze and a slight chill in the air.  All the animals (including humans) at the stable seemed to be frisky - the dogs were chasing each other around and barking at the kids, the kids were running back and forth yelling at each other and swinging plastic bags and other fun noisy objects at the horses.  And of course, the horses responded accordingly.  Even the old lesson horses were acting up, like a normally lazy pony who spooked and dumped his rider, then promptly started galloping around the arena with his leg stuck through one of his reins.  Or the 18 year old mare whose heat cycle was apparently too much for her and decided to try to tempt one of the school geldings into some impromtu nookie.  Add that to the fact that two little girls were jumping grids at the end of the arena and every so often they would lose control and one of their horses would come cantering through our lesson.

Starbuck was also a little footsore from her trim on Tuesday, I got to the stable late so I rushed tacking her up and when I finally had her ready to go every square meter of the arena was full so I had to longe her in the scrubby grassy part where she pays way more attention to trying to snatch a bite to eat than she does to my instructions.

You know how all those Natural Horsemanship folks talk about setting your young horse up for success?  Well this was a perfect example of what NOT to do.  But on the other hand, we're now at a point where I can't give her the day off just because I'm not absolutely sure she won't dump me.  So I mounted up (from the off side and with hardly any circling at all, thank you very much) and started our warm up.

Right off the bat she was fidgety, tense and distracted - her head was swinging all over the place, up, down, left, right, back at me, ... if there was something even slightly visible she wanted to check it out, and two times out of three it turned out to be something she found scary.  So we warmed up with a fair amount of contact instead of on the buckle, but we finally got her loosened up enough to join the rest of the class.  We started trotting on a circle with the rest of the students, but she spooked often enough that Marina put us on the inside track to work on transitions.  I still find it really challenging to stay one step ahead of her and find different things to ask her to do constantly so she stays focused on me but I guess this is just something I'll get better at as I gain more experience.

At any rate, I tried my best to keep her occupied with limited success and she spooked a few of times but for once I was relaxed, balanced and with it enough to use my one-rein stop on her and get us both settled down and back to work.  As anxious a person as I am, it's so hard to focus on releasing tension and relaxing my muscles and deep breathing when I want to focus on "WHY WON'T SHE GO SLOWER!!!" but I'm slowly learning to do so.

So this is why my husband referred to her as "not of this world" - she was in a universe of her own the whole time where everything was really interesting and scary at the same time.  He said he had expected her to be more focused but also understood that just like a normal ADD teenager she has good days and bad.  But what was most revealing was when I asked him if he had been afraid for me when she spooked (he's always worried I'm going to fall off and break something) and he said that as a matter of fact I seemed so sure of myself and confident the whole time that he hadn't worried about it at all.

So in the end Wednesday's lesson wasn't so much about Starbuck's progress but my own.  And it's about damn time!  I get so wrapped up working towards shaping her into my dream horse that I tend to forget that I've got a long way to go before I'm her dream rider.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


We had another farrier visit today, this one's her fourth.  I think Starbuck has taken a disliking to my farrier and only barely tolerates his goings-on, which is frustrating to me since it's so completely undeserved.  Xisco is soothing, laid-back yet confident and competent and never gets angry or agressive.  He's just the kind of guy I'd want to do my hooves if I were a horse.  So the whole time I kind of just stand there attempting to spread "Relax, this is all OK, nothing bad is happening, stand still PLEASE" vibes to her when she gets too antsy or a fly starts bothering her but inwardly I'm really dying a little of shame with every jerk of her leg.

Don't get me wrong, she's mostly good and stood still long enough for him to trim the first three hooves in about 15 minutes.  But that last hind hoof... she was not at all happy and kept grabbing it away, in the end Xisco had to do a little desensitizing by rubbing her leg with a broomstick before she finally stood still long enough for him to finish.  At least he was able to finish, unlike the second time where he had to leave that last hind hoof untrimmed.  Not a disaster, but definitely not a blinding success for me as a trainer-owner.  At least he doesn't seem to hate me and told me again how healthy and pretty her hooves are (although I'm starting to wonder if this is like the "He's got a great personality" compliment).

Anyhow recently I've been trying to get some of the more seasoned kids around the stable to pick out her hooves so she gets used to folks other than me handling her feet.  And the days that she's less than enthusiastic about having her hooves picked up (and I have time), I give her a full pedicure complete with wirebrush cleaning, sponge bath and finally hoof ointment.  And hoping that someday, somehow, the penny will drop and she'll just be cool with it.

One of the things that I've been realizing more fully lately is just how strong Starbuck's personality really is.  She's really kind of a bitch and seriously bossy, which is funny considering how poorly I read her at first.  I was convinced that she was just a sweet yet spooky little greenie who had no aspirations to lead mare status.  Boy was I wrong!  I guess as long as they get to do whatever they want, anyone can seem like the nicest guy in the world.  Good thing I'm even more bossy and bitchy than she is.  Anyhow here are the rest of the photos:

Left front:
Left hind:
Right hind:
Right front:

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Dr. Jekyll, Meet Mr. Hyde

As I mentioned in my last post, we had class on Wednesday evening.  Here's how it went: Starbuck was just hitting the pinnacle of her horsey period (or heat, whatever...) and was accordingly distracted, lazy and more than a little cranky.  Depending on their relative attractiveness, every time a horse got anywhere near us she would either attempt to swing her rear end toward it or try to bite it, and she was throwing her head around so much I thought her wolf teeth might be finally coming in and bothering her.  She also stumbled a few times, not paying attention to what she was doing.  But I kept thinking that at least she wasn't being spooky and thus was willing to take whatever she was willing to give me.

But my instructor and mentor Marina was NOT so accepting and quickly put us on a tight circle inside a larger circle where the other students were cantering.  "Keep her moving, I want to see a WORKING walk, that means she has to work harder than you, give her a kick, kick her again, now make her trot, trot faster, now walk again, but WALK, not amble!! Don't let her look at that other horse, kick her again! Change directions, trot again! C'mon, trot! I mean NOW! Now let her walk but make her hustle! More walk, give her another kick! Let's try a sitting trot..."  This was more or less what we heard for the next 30 or so minutes as I struggled to keep one step ahead of my little filly.

Marina explained to me that the idea is to be much less forgiving on the days where Starbuck is in a bad mood and doesn't want to cooperate or even pay attention, and be much more forgiving when she's really giving it her best shot.  I have to say I felt pretty bad being such a meanie (I kicked so often and so hard I broke the zipper on my half-chaps) and wasn't completely on board with this technique, I kept thinking that if the next time I rode her she bucked me off I wouldn't blame her.

But it's also true that no matter how hard I kicked she would hustle for just a second and then go back to her ambling, "you ain't the boss of me" walk.  At the end of the class Marina put us on a longe line, I stowed my stirrups across Starbuck's withers and we ended up doing about 10 minutes of stirrupless walk and trot on the longe to improve my posture and drill "we ARE in fact the boss of you" into her head.  At the end of the class, I gave her a long, deep massage but was sure she would still resent it and take it out on me the next time I rode.

Today I rode her again and what a difference!  She stood stock still to let me mount up, warmed up quietly but with a (safe feeling) spring in her step and when we joined the rest of the horses, fell right into line and trotted with the best of 'em!  I could tell her attention was on me almost the entire time I was riding her and she only spooked once, when some very noisy truck (I think it must have been hauling sheet metal or congo drums or something) passed the stable.  We passed the scary side of the arena several times with no problem whatsoever, practiced our sitting trot (so my fat ass is not to hard on her back I'm doing three strides rising trot, three strides sitting trot, four strides rising trot, four sitting trot, on up to ten strides of each, then back to three), did a lot of good stop - walk - trot - walk - stop transitions, and even did a spiral in - spiral out exercise just as well as the other horses!  She did so well, in fact, that after about 40 minutes Marina gave us permission to take the rest of the class off and just cool down for a while in order to reward Starbuck for her good work.

So we walked over some cavalletti for a while and then went to the far end of the arena which as I've mentioned before is kind of overgrown and wild - at any rate my friend Belén joined us with her horse Cancunen and we rode next to each other at a walk just chatting and enjoying the sunny morning.  It sounds so simple but the very fact that I can do something so laid back with Starbuck is absolutely thrilling to me.  When we decided we'd had enough, I decided to push the envelope just a little bit more and ride Starbuck out of the arena, which I'd never done before.  And guess what?  No problem.  At all.  We rode out of the arena to the tying posts (I was too chicken to go any farther) and she just went along with it like it was nothing.  Silly me for being so excited about it but there you are!

Tomorrow if she's as laid back as today I'm going to ride her around the stablegrounds.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Status Report

We're starting to find the rhythm of things.  I think that for now we're averaging about 2 or 3 good rides for each time I fall off which I'm OK with.  I've reached my 7 falls and am finding it harder to have a sense of humour about it, but hopefully my body's learning its lesson and at some point will get better at staying on.  The other day I fell a little harder than normal and really didn't want to get back on, luckily my fabulous instructor insisted that I climb back up there and handwalked us around for a few minutes until my legs stopped shaking.  But the other day we had another terrific lesson walking over cavaletti and threading in and out of jump standard poles at the trot.  So on the one hand I see all the bruises and back pain in my future and cringe and on the other hand, I enjoy riding Starbuck more and more every day.  I'm also feeling more confident about the scary side of the arena, we've been doing all our longeing there lately and she's starting to get much more blasé about it.  When I longe her in her halter I try to let her graze there for a few minutes at the end for a reward, so she'll see it's really a nice place if she'll give it half a chance.

I've also bumped up the amount of time at the trot I ask her for while longeing or roundpenning, making her stick it out for at least three and working up to five minutes at a time.  It's interesting for me to watch for her rebellious moments which almost always pop up when we're doing groundwork, mostly right when she starts to get a little tired or when I'm asking her to challenge herself mentally.  She does some serious teenager head tosses and speeds up and in the roundpen sometimes even gives a little kick or buck, but as long as I wait it out and ask her to change directions a few times she calms right down.

Also, giving her those massages with long heavy strokes along her spine that the vet recommended is definitely having a beneficial effect!  Where she used to move away from the saddleblanket when I would go to put it on her she now stands still and doesn't try to avoid it, and she also moves around a lot less when I cinch her up.  I think it improves our relationship too and am taking advantage of her being relaxed after her massage to really get her sacked out in the areas where she's always been a little more sensitive - udders, mouth and nose.

At any rate yesterday I dewormed her (I'm a little late this time but have decided to do it once every 4 months instead of every 3 months) - she behaved really well even though this time the worming paste was pretty nasty smelling.  And for a reward I broke out the new hay net I bought her and stuffed it with oat hay, wild fennel sprigs, freshly sickled grass (yes, we have sickles at my barn to take advantage of those hard-to-graze spots) and carob beans (there are a lot of carob trees around here and carob beans are a frequent horse treat).  She absolutely loved it and I think she had as much fun swinging the net around as she did trying to get at the yummy stuff hidden among the hay.

I have another lesson this afternoon, we'll see how it goes!