Wednesday, December 24, 2014


Sorry guys, this is an old post (from December 9th or so) which I wrote and forgot to post.  But I definitely want to post it to remember the exercises so here goes:

Yesterday (well actually about 18 days ago) was a bank holiday in Spain (immaculate conception day, if you can believe that) and since we had hardly any classes last week due to rain, Marina ignored her no-class-on-Mondays rule and gave a regular riding lesson in the morning and a groundwork agility lesson in the afternoon.  I was too busy flying back from Madrid (a nice trip by the way) to go to the regular lesson but I did make it to the groundwork lesson, and boy am I glad I did - we had a great time and I really got some good advice from Marina to put into practice.

We started out with a little longeing to warm up, and then Marina put us to work on a sort of obstacle course she had put together - we had to stay at any of the "stations" long enough to get the horse to go through it correctly, then move on to another one.  If any of the "stations" got to be easy, we had to up the difficulty level by standing farther away from the horse, or doing it in trot rather than walk.

Here's a diagram of the different stations, the smiley face is the person and the green arrows are where the horse is supposed to go.  Below the diagram is a brief description of each station - all of them were to do in both directions.

1 - Two tires about 3 feet apart inside a square formed by four jump poles (maybe 8 - 9 feet long each).  The person stayed outside the square, the horse inside.  The horse had to make a complete circuit of the square without stepping outside, then change direction through the two tires.  This was incredibly difficult, we only did it well like 3 times.

2 - This was a larger, partially open square made of the blue and yellow cushion-like training bars with two cones placed in each corner.  The person was inside the square, and the horse had to go around the square between the bars and cones, without stepping outside.

3 - This was a simple low crossrails jump using two tires as the standards.

4 - Parallel jump poles in an "L" shape.  The horse had to go between the two poles without stepping outside, with the person outside the poles.  Starbuck and I even did it backwards a few times.

5 - Three pairs of cones for the horse to walk between, with the person walking alongside.  This was really easy until I tried to get farther (like 3 - 4 feet) away from Starbuck, then it was much harder to get her to go through the cones.

6 - Ground poles to go over in a circle.  Using only my dressage whip and not having a longe whip, it was difficult to keep her at a trot, but we ended up figuring it out.

7 - This is a solid "wall" made out of plywood in an elongated pyramid shape for the horses to jump in a circle.

8 - Two tires about 6 feet apart.  The person stood back about 6 feet away from them and had to send the horse in a figure eight between and around the two tires.  We've done this before so it wasn't impossible, but she would still "skip" a tire every now and then.

The main thing I took away from the lesson was that instead of just "ignoring" incorrect responses and trying again, Marina suggests I try really hard to stop Starbuck before she does the wrong thing and re-set it up so she can do the right one.  For instance, going around the figure eight tires, I often have the problem where I "undersend" and she doesn't quite make it around one on one side.  Until now, I've always simply let her finish and then try harder the next time.  But Marina says that if I see she's going to "miss" a tire, I should stop her, back her up if I need to and re-send her - repeating all of this until she does it right.  And I could definitely tell she was thinking about it and trying to work it out when she finally made it through and I was reminded of an article I read way back when I started working with her, about replacing the flight response with a problem-solving mindset so the horse gets in the habit of thinking before it reacts.  I don't remember who wrote it, but it's definitely something to keep in mind when working with Starbuck.

Marina also recommended that instead of just doing 10 minutes of walk to warm up before ridden lessons, I work on some of these exercises to warm up and get Starbuck focused on me.  I think this is a fabulous idea and am going to try to remember to do it!

Here and here are two Facebook videos of the lesson (sorry if the visibility's limited, a friend of mine made it), I definitely hope we do more like this in the future.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Too busy to write

I've been really busy with non-horsey stuff (Thanksgiving anyone?) these past weeks and haven't been posting much, on the other hand there hasn't been a whole lot I've wanted to write about on the horse front.  But here's a brief (well, as brief as I can be) summary just to keep things recorded:

Uneven trot thing - doing much better, although there have been a few times she's once again been kind of stiff and uneven especially when starting out a ride.  Transitions seem to work really well loosening her up.  Also been doing a lot of turns on the haunches.

Behavior - she's once again starting to oscillate between almost completely dead to my leg aids and needing to be pushed every stride or absolutely electric, spooking and running away with me every few minutes.  I'm hoping this is one of those "two steps back before the big step forward" things, and the truth is that the other day we had a ride where she was pretty electric and just barely controllable at first but with just the right guidance was much more fun to ride than usual as I didn't have to push her constantly.  So maybe it's a matter of me becoming comfortable with her kicking it up a notch.

It's been a rainy week and she's hurt her hoof (see more below) so she had a couple of days off, then yesterday when I took her out to the parking lot to lunge a bit she had a spook and shouldered me off the path.  I'm pretty bummed that this is something that keeps happening - granted it hardly ever happens any more and when it does she doesn't actually run me over like she used to, but she's still not beyond shoving me aside and I'm painfully aware that this is evidence of her lack of trust and respect for me.  Anyhow I've been thinking about it and I think that my response when she does this is inappropriate and may be in fact making things worse - I tend to get aggravated, make myself larger and get her focussed on me (in hopes she won't run me over) in a fairly aggressive way, jerking at the lead rope, tapping her with my stick and reprimanding her or even giving a quick "Hey!" shout.  But if I think about it rationally, a whisper would probably do as well (or better) as a shout, and the truth is I can't expect her to trust me if my response to her being scared is effectively scaring her more.  So next time, I'm planning to try to keep my body language as non-threatening and neutral as possible and talk to her calmly, reassuring her there's nothing to be afraid of.  Whatever happens it will be a learning experience.

Dentist - so the equine dentist came over from Barcelona on her yearly visit and everything was more or less fine.  A few points but nothing to write home about.  Starbuck behaved nicely (the sedation helps) and it went much faster than expected.  Sandra Fortuny's my dentist, she's more expensive than just having the vet float their teeth but I really like her and think she does a really good job, plus she's really good and patient with the horsies.  She studied (she's actually a qualified equine surgeon) for a while in the US and did her residency at the animal hospital near Aqueduct race tracks.

New boo boos - her new bald spot is healing nicely and starting to have a thin layer of fur, and she has less fly-scratchy scabs than she does in the dead of summer, but she still has them.  And it's not surprising, as there are still a fair amount of flies.  I lent my fly mask to a friend whose horse has eye issues, but I'm thinking I may have to keep the fly mask on her year-round.  She's the scabbiest on her cheeks where she scratches herself with her hind hoof.  And what blog post would be complete without a new wound?  When I went to clean out her feet on Monday I noticed she was missing a chunk of her front left hoof and frog where I'm guessing she stepped on herself with one of the studs on her horseshoes.  It wasn't bleeding and didn't seem to hurt her when I probed it and cleaned it out, so I wasn't too worried but I checked with my vet and she recommended bandaging it with gauze and disinfectant for at least two days so that's what I've been doing.  After four days of bandaging she isn't lame at all and the wound has grown noticeably smaller so today I just cleaned it but didn't put a bandage on her and we'll see how it goes - she'll have a rest this weekend since I'm going to Madrid.

OK, I think that's all for now.  All in all we're making progress, I'm just going through a phase where I'm feeling very doubtful and inquisitive about what we're doing and where we're going, and especially about our relationship.  We're still at a level where I have to ask / nag / demand and I wonder how much of this is her, and how much of it is me (pretty sure it's nearly all me).  I know there's a better way to do things, and having just finished reading Alois Podjasky's "My Horses, My Teachers" I'm really motivated to try to find it.  But right now I'm completely at a loss as to how to motivate her in more positive ways - I'm getting better at this but she's just not the kind of horse that responds much to cuddles.  Anyhow it's simply yet another daily reminder of the mindblowing amount of things I still have to learn about horses.

Got to remember my mantra - Try different things.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

I'm Not Proud Of My Jumping Technique

In the past few years since I started riding again, I have gained lots of horsey abilities I am pretty proud of.  Handling an unruly horse from the ground, roundpenning, stickability in the saddle, ... these are things I do fairly well.  But man do I stink at jumping.  I mean, that's not to say that my overall riding technique doesn't leave a LOT to be desired, but it's in jumping that I really notice it.  And yes, I've taken a lot of lessons, but I guess it's an example of the importance of practice and muscle memory, because I STILL bring my heels up and am unable to be effective with my leg aids going into a jump, and I STILL forget to give enough with my hands for the horse to use its head / neck freely as we go over the jump.

So that's my pre-apology for these fairly terrible videos you'll see in a minute - I am off balance, not driving her effectively toward the jump and catching her in the mouth on the way over.  Of course, the fact that she was not happy about having to work on the scary side and I had to hold her in with the reins and use way more contact than I normally do didn't help things, nor did her frequent spins and bucks which were NOT caught on tape (this is why I do one at a trot).  At any rate it was interesting to see and a good reminder to keep taking lessons on a "normal" horse from time to time to practice improving these things without the additional stress of simply trying to stay on.

In other news, we're doing much better on the unevenness front - last week it was kind of rainy so on Tuesday instead of riding I just longed her and she was completely nutso, piaffeing and prancing bucking and doing her crazy gallop which makes her look more like a huge, clumsy jackrabbit than a horse - she would snort and then spook at the echo of her snort... in the end it was a fun show but I was thinking "great, tomorrow she'll be even lamer".  Well I was wrong - it seems almost like she needed to really reach her full range of movement to get better because the very next day she was already moving much better.

And finally, what blog post would be complete without a new health issue?  On Saturday a friend of mine was leading her filly around the stableyard and stopped at my paddock, then while we were chatting the two fillies put their noses together to say "hi, who's the boss here?" as mares do, her filly won and Starbuck reared up, hitting her head on the stall ceiling.  Note to self - only allow socialization outside stall.  Anyhow she scraped her head up pretty well - as if she didn't already have enough bald spots from scratching herself - and developed a pretty nice goose egg on her nose, but the vet just told me to clean it and treat it with Furacin and give her a couple of antiinflamatory packets and in the end she was fine.  If we end up going to the show this weekend (which in light of the videos I'm reconsidering) I'm thinking of painting the bald spot white so it'll look like a blaze instead of a wound.

Monday, November 10, 2014

A bad day

We had a pretty bad day yesterday, Starbuck and I.  We were accompanied by Virginia and Coco, René and Rodrigo, Ana and Pepa and Carmen and Trueno - right off the bat Starbuck was very possesive of Coco and pinned her ears and pointed her butt at anyone who came near.  This was annoying but not really troubling to me - I tend to just ignore the pinned ears and try to see it as an opportunity to improve my leg aids getting her rear end back on track.  In addition to acting bitchy, she was also really full of beans - trying to get in front constantly and just general ADHD stuff - for instance when we got to a park with some hills where the other horses just walked calmly, she just had to gallop up, nearly unseating me when I lost my stirrups.  Thank goodness I remembered to grab mane and turn her in a circle.

 It went on and on - nothing too terrible for the most part but just her being only barely controllable, which wound me up, which wound her up even further, which made things worse.  To look on the bright side, it was a really interesting new route we'd never been on before with what looked like plenty of new places to explore on future rides, we did a fair amount of trotting on varied terrain so she was able to use her muscles differently than she does in the arena, and she was certainly tracking up the entire time.  One of the things I think is so valuable about our trail rides is that I don't tend to have to push her and can really practice trotting and cantering without constant leg cues, and yesterday was no exception - only I ended up with a sore back, a tension headache and blisters on my hands from the reins, so I don't even want to think about (but am making myself acknowledge) how her back and mouth must have felt.

On the way home things were even worse - she broke into a full out gallop several times and to discipline her I took what may not have been one of my best decisions of all time - every time she broke into a gallop I'd turn her around, walk her to the end of the group and only let her catch up with the group at a walk or a slow trot.  This understandably pissed her off even more, but I can't always let her have her way, especially if it entails unsafe behavior around other horses.  Anyhow this strategy worked more or less until we got back to the hilly park, where the rest of the horses walked down the hill and since she wanted to gallop and I wasn't able to rate her, I wouldn't let her go after them.  We circled and circled at the top of the hill and as the rest of the horses moved on out of sight she got more and more frantic until finally my friend Virginia came back with Coco to rescue us and we followed them down - at a trot, which was faster than I wanted but slower than Starbuck wanted.  I guess this is an example of “a good negotiation is one where both parties walk equally unhappy”.  I am now convinced that what I should have done is get off then and walk her down in hand, but I was too frantic to think clearly about anything but my aids and immediate strategy for not getting us killed.

The most serious scare was when we passed some people who were fixing a stone wall on the side of the road - a little old lady helping them started telling me "How lovely to see people riding horses out here in the countryside on a Sunday" when two cars passed us and Starbuck freaked out, lunging towards the poor little old lady before getting back in line and passing her.  She didn't get closer than about 5 feet, but still - it was still much too close for comfort and I felt awful for the poor lady.  I was so freaked out I don't even remember if I apologized.  Then only a few minutes later Carmen's horse Trueno got a little closer to Starbuck's rear end than she wanted and she gave a mini buck and then a BIG buck when he didn't heed the first one - thankfully he wasn't close enough for her to reach him but still... I was really losing it at this point - after two hours of tension and barely controlled explosions I was starting to really feel angry and superfrustrated and noticed that I was starting to do things like jerk on the reins and use the whip as a punishment.  So as soon as we got off the road I stopped her as soon as I could and jumped off and led her the rest of the way back to the stable, which was good for both of our backs anyway.  But I was feeling guilty, pissed, and scared.

By the time I longed her in the arena (no way she was getting off easy after the ride she gave me), showered her, rubbed her down and gave her a nice pile of hay, I was able to be a little more philosophical.  I do think my biggest mistake was not getting off earlier but trying to muscle my way through her craziness by riding, so next time I'll bring my long lead rope so I can do some emergency longeing if I need to.  Lesson # 1 learned.  Other lessons: it's important to be reminded from time to time that no matter how well she behaves on one trail ride (or lesson, or show, or whatever...), it's no guarantee she'll behave so well the next time, and that I can't get cocky since I still can't necessarily control her all the time.  I'm also going to get a green ribbon for her tail to give people (myself included) a visual reminder that she's not completely predictable, and I will never again stop right in front of a little old lady, even if it means being rude.

Mostly, I have to remember that we all have bad days, and I can't get bogged down or discouraged by this one, no matter how harrowing it was.  After all, it wasn't SO bad - we discovered a new route and went on a trail ride in sketchy (wind, dark threatening clouds) weather without maiming anyone, including ourselves.  And although it was touch and go at some points, I WAS still able to control her in the end.  I'm even trying to be optimistic and remember that usually when she has several really bad days close together it generally signals a learning spurt.  But still, next year she's getting liability insurance - it'll be one less thing to worry about.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Why I'm glad I'm fat

"Thank God my ass is so fat" is not something that tends to go through my mind on a daily basis.  In fact my lifelong struggle between wanting to be hot and wanting to subsist entirely on a diet of cheese, pork products, fried food and elaborate desserts pretty much makes me tend to think the exactly the opposite, cursing my oh-so-American "curves" fairly regularly.  But I sure was grateful for all that extra blubber last night - and I bet you can guess why ;-)

So here's what went down - it's been pretty rainy for the past couple of days and we've all been jonesing for a ride.  Last night the rain had stopped, but not long enough for the arena to be usable.  So yesterday my stablemates Amanda and Maria Jose decided to at least ride around the barnyard on the walkways going by all the paddocks.  Somehow the fact that we would be riding in the dark except for the moon and a far away bulb throwing some freaky shadows, that it was still really muddy and that the horses hadn't been ridden all week failed to deter us, so we saddled 'em up, jumped on and started off.

First obstacle - horny stud colt on one side of the track, playful and bored horses bounding up to see what we were doing on the other.  Starbuck got a little exuberant and broke into a trot to get to the head of the line while Maria Jose's horse Compay decided to teach horny stud colt a lesson by throwing a few bucks.  Maria Jose wisely got off but Amanda and I kept going.

Second obstacle - scary corner where the horses could see their own shadows.  Starbuck wheeled around and tried to gallop back where we had come from, luckily dodging poor Maria Jose.  But I wheeled her back around and we were able to walk (well, prance) past it.

Third obstacle - terrifying hay bales covered with horrific tarps.  All three of the horses stopped in their tracks and didn't want to pass the evil hay bales.  Maria Jose tried to walk Compay in hand past it first but Starbuck and Melyne (Amanda's mare) were getting nervous so I decided to pass her.  There was a moment where Starbuck got stuck, then I tapped her with my crop and she shot forward, then sideways, then backward, then whirled around in a circle and started to gallop off.  During this I was mostly just trying to stay up there and do a little damage control since we were a little too close to the roof of one of the stalls for comfort, but I ended up putting too much weight on one stirrup so when she galloped off the saddle slipped down to the right side.  Between me hauling on the reins to slow her down and the saddle being way off center, she got pissed off and threw a few bucks and I went down on the third, landing squarely on my right butt cheek.  But she didn't get very far before I went down and it didn't even hurt (and still doesn't this morning), which is why today I'm celebrating my tendency to chunkiness.  Yay cheese!

Anyhow after walking her by the offending hay bale and its dangerous drapery several times and letting her snort at it a few more times, I got right back up and this time was able to ride by without incident.  We made several more loops of the stableyard and in the end really enjoyed our ride in the moonlight.  So I'm not happy I fell but I am happy I didn't let the fall ruin what ended up being a good learning and desensitizing experience and a fun ride with friends.

Going back in time to Monday, the day before all the rain started, I decided to give Starbuck kind of a light day and started just longeing her, but then got inspired and decided to ride her.  But to keep things low-key, I rode her with only the rope halter and lead rope instead of her normal bridle.  It's the first time I'd ridden all over the whole arena like that - the other times I've ridden her in a halter we blocked off the "non-scary" section to ride in, so I was pretty proud of us.  It took me a while to remember how to switch the lead rope from one side to the other without smacking her in the face with it, and it took her a while to realize I really meant her to go where I was asking her to go, but in the end we really covered the entire arena doing lots of serpentines and figure eights and walking right by the bar and pigpen and whatnot at a walk, then doing some figure-eights and circles at a trot and a couple of circles in canter.

Some positive things I took away from this: she didn't buck or dash off at a full out gallop or otherwise misbehave at any point, so that was a big trust-booster for me.  Also she had her head way down the entire time and was really actually using her hindquarters - you would have taken her for a western pleasure horse if it weren't for the saddle.  And finally, over the course of the 40 minutes or so that I was riding her we really progressed from "I'm completely going to ignore your aids" to "You don't really want to go over THERE do you?" to "I guess we can do that if you say so" to "OK, let's do it".  As much as I hate being bad at something, it's good to experience both the humbling sensation of not being able to do the simplest thing like walk in a straight line for 10 feet but also the cause-and-effect goodness of that kind of progress from time to time - it reminds me to not get so frustrated when things don't go like I want them to.

And finally last Saturday I had my first dressage lesson with my friend Virginia's old teacher Daniela who also taught a clinic I attended a few years ago - my friend Belén (owner of Lady Utopia, an even younger filly than Starbuck - and yes, that's her registered name) and I have decided to kick it up a notch and do some semi-private (just us and the teacher) lessons once every couple of weeks to see if we can make some real progress on both our riding and the girls' way of going this winter.  We got one of our friends to tape it and as soon as I have enough patience and time and computer resources to upload the videos I'll do a dedicated post on that.

Have a great weekend folks and remember, being chubby has its benefits! XD

Friday, October 24, 2014

Photos! And a couple of trail rides

This post is old because I never got around to uploading the photos until now.  So two weeks ago I used my feminine wiles to convince Sergio to come out and visit Starbuck with me, dropping a casual hint that since I had given her a bath with my special shampoo for black horses she would be very photogenic.  So we ended up with a lovely photo shoot to show off our new and improved relationship, which I'll showcase below.

In other news we had a lovely lesson that Saturday morning including a few low jumps where she showed lots of impulsion and a fair amount of straightness both going in to and coming out of the jumps.  Her trot was much more even as well, especially after she warmed up.  And Sunday I went out on a trail ride with Carmen, another friend from the barn.  I was very proud of us because our two horses had always simply followed more confident horses on trail rides and had never gone out "on their own" before.  Carmen's horse Trueno (that's Spanish for "Thunder") wasn't really up to leading, but neither was he really willing to accept Starbuck as a leader at first.  And Starbuck was pretty sure she didn't want to go in front.  So the first 20 minutes or so were really a struggle, as we fought their urge to turn around and hustle back to the barn and sat out the inevitable spooks passing through "mad dog alley" (this is about a 200 foot stretch of road where the houses on either side seem to have about 8 dogs each who are completely freaked out by horses).  I had to use my crop more than I'm proud of, but hopefully I'll be able to rely on it less next time and really when moving traffic is involved the choice is pretty clear.  My goal for Christmas is to be able to ride without a crop.

Our brand new fancy schmancy reflective saddlepad will hopefully make us more visible to traffic (thanks to Carmen for the pics)

Once Starbuck figured out that I really meant to keep going and not let her take charge, she calmed down and kept up a really nice rhythm (except for a little bit of balking at some big brightly colored trash containers) and led the way for the whole ride.  She even let Trueno trot beside her nicely without any ear pinning or other threats, and kept up a nice even, rhythmic trot with only a slight tendency to turn her head to the left (back towards the stable, not surprisingly).  We even "practiced" walking on the sidewalk in one neighborhood and stepping on and off the curb - no problem!  So all in all I'm pretty proud of myself for persisting and not freaking out when the going got tough and extremely proud of Starbuck for being able to trust me enough to take it all in stride and even be the leader for once.

This week I've been sick, but Sunday we went on another trail ride with Virginia and ended up walking all around a park and going through some "obstacles" (like a kid's jungle gym, a platform for people to do steps on, some low-lying poles...) which was loads of fun and I think a real confidence builder for Starbuck.  The only thing which really freaked her out was a kid on a skateboard, and walking past the racketball courts - so two things to keep in mind to work on.  And yesterday I rode her in a lesson and she was much better with her unevenness / limpy thing.  This weekend she'll get another rest since I'll be out of town, so hopefully we'll finally start seeing some real progress.

Here are the lurvely photos... unfortunately my favorite ones were lost in IT-land but this gives me an even better excuse for Sergio to come and take more ;)

Friday, October 10, 2014

Mixed Feelings

This week is one of mixed feelings.  On the one hand, Starbuck's still uneven at the trot and doesn't reach as far underneath her with her right hind.  While it's not exactly lameness, I still don't feel confident working her 100% and it's something I have on my mind pretty much constantly.  She has no visible swelling, hotspots or pain anywhere in her legs.  At the walk she's perfect.  At the canter she's perfect.  But trotting (especially going to the left) you can tell that there's something wrong.  My vet has ruled out tendon or bone issues and is convinced it's back or hip tension causing this, I've had the physical therapist out to work on her and between holidays, rain and preparing for the show with Vent she's had what amounts to about a month and a half of paddock rest with a few interludes of hour-long hacks, lungeing and very light riding.

Since she was doing better a couple of weeks ago but has now reverted to her old gimpy highjinks, I'm a little tempted to call up the "specializes in lameness" vet and ask for a second opinion.  But both my vet and the physical therapist advised me to work her normally, with an emphasis on extensions.  So I've decided to keep doing just that for at least a little while longer - if she gets worse or doesn't improve at all after a few weeks I can always stop working her and call the other vet and if she gets better then great.  I'm trying to be objective about it and remember that when I personally have pain issues (especially back pain), generally the only way I can get it to go away is through exercise.

On the other hand, we are really reaching a new level in our relationship which I'm absolutely thrilled with.  I'm convinced that my focussing on giving her more positive feedback and trying to dial down the negative feedback (less scolding, more praise) is really having a great effect on her behavior and motivation.  I'm also able to use lighter and fewer aids than before and hardly ever get to the point of having a battle of wills.  It actually feels like she's listening to me and waiting for my next instruction, and I hardly have to nag at her to keep going at all.  In our lessons, to try to ensure that she doesn't just go around and around "practicing" unevenness, Marina has suggested that I do lots of transitions and work a lot over ground poles and tires and stuff so she has to think quick on her feet.  We're also doing a fair amount of turns on the haunches to loosen up her back (which she's starting to get pretty good at), shoulder-in to build her up a little for more impulsion and trotting poles to work on her abdominal muscles.

As a result of all of this, her transitions are really getting spot-on - right when I ask for them, with ever-lighter aids and less dragging of feet than she usually does (trot?  you REALLY want me to trot?  are you SURE about that?  oooooookay...).  And after about 20 minutes of warming up with walk-stop-walk and walk-trot-walk transitions, her trot is definitely a lot more even and the irregularity is barely noticeable.  But best of all?  Her canter has improved immeasurably!  Tuesday and Wednesday we only did transitions, never letting her get more than 5 or 6 canter strides in before going back to a trot.  But yesterday she was moving well enough I decided to let her keep going for about a 30 meter circle to the right, and it was the best canter I've ever experienced on her.  Smooth, rhythmic, energetic, even a little floaty... it was like a dream come true!  And in the other direction it was almost as good, although there was a little head-shaking (probably related to the unevenness thing).  And best of all?  In the three lessons we've had this week, even now that it's dark enough for the arena lights to cast long and scary shadows, she's only spooked ONCE - and even that was when another horse spooked first, and she didn't take off galloping, only jumped to the side and spun a little.

So I'm really having a blast riding her both out on the trail and in lessons, and we get along much better on the ground - she pays much more attention to me and is a lot less bargey now that she knows that a neck rub, a "good girl" or a carob bean are right around the corner.  And best of all, she seems to actually be enjoying our rides nearly as much as I do.  So if we can get her movement and back issues worked out, we'll be right on track.

Monday, October 6, 2014

I won a ribbon!!!

So yesterday was the big day - my first show jumping competition ever!  As I mentioned before, I rode one of Marina's lesson horses (the fabulous Vent) since Starbuck's still not 100% back in condition after her long rest due to achey back lameness and also so I could safely indulge in any of my own nerves and jitters about the competition without compounding them with hers about the van and being in a strange place.  And the course I jumped was only 60 cm (just over a foot and a half), so most of my co-competitors were little girls under the age of ten - in fact everyone who finished the course without their horse refusing or knocking over a jump was considered a "winner" and got a ribbon (like ME!!!).  Although I felt a little silly for being so cautious (especially since I shared my horse with an nine-year-old), I think in the end it was a really good strategy and I was bolstered by the fact that four of my adult friends from the stable were also competing at the same level.  Also, instead of freaking the $*&# out I was able to focus on things like having a terrific time, jumping the course neatly and learning as much as possible for next time.

So here are the most important nuggets of wisdom I took away from the experience:
  1. You have to wake up really, really early on show day, especially if you're using hired transport.  And we're lucky enough to be only 20 minutes away from the club that's hosting these "Winter Social" shows, I can't imagine what it'd be like to go to a show on the other side of the island.  As it was my alarm went off at 5:30 a.m. to get all my stuff together and be at the stable to load my horse by 6:30.  Thanks to my mom I have a fabulous porcelain "to go cup" to truck my coffee around in, and I had most of a leftover almond croissant to munch on, otherwise I wouldn't have had breakfast.  Next time I'll prepare a little better so all I have to do is get dressed and grab coffee and a duffel bag on the way out.
  2. The order of the jumps is easier to remember than I thought it would be.  Honestly one of the things I was most worried about was forgetting the order and being eliminated for jumping the wrong one, but after walking the course once with Marina coaching us and giving us tips on how to best negotiate each one of the jumps, walking it again on my own and then mentally going over it a few times it ended up being a piece of cake.
  3. Things go a lot quicker than you expect.  When you're watching a show and there are 30 participants in one class, it seems to take forEVER.  But when you're waiting on the sidelines for the little girl sharing your horse to finish, then walking the horse back to the tying posts to change his tack because the little girl's saddlepad color doesn't match your fabulous new shirt, then realizing you left your keys with a friend back at the arena so you have to run up to the arena and run back down to the tying posts, then tacking up as if possessed by speedy demons, then trotting back to the warmup area where your instructor is yelling "what took you so long", time moves really quickly.  Wisdom to take home - either don't share your horse or wear neutral colors, and have a "car keys strategy" worked out ahead of time.
  4. The warm-up jumps are one-way only.  People either get angry or laugh at you when you jump them the other way.  'Nuff said ;)
  5. As I actually suspected at the back of my mind but superstitiously didn't want to mention beforehand, I didn't feel nervous or get "stage fright" at all, at any moment (even after I jumped the warm-up obstacle the wrong way).  Being in front of a crowd focusses me and generally makes me perform better than otherwise.  I remembered to salute the judges, to take Vent by the possibly scary yellow jump at the end, and was even able to remember most of Marina's great advice - breathe and count strides between jumps, outside leg and outside rein and listen for the horse's hind hooves going into a jump to make sure he's squared up.  And as a result, I am really proud of the way I jumped the course.
  6. Show jumping is FUN!  The songs they had playing during my course were "In the jungle the mighty jungle" and "It's a small world after all" and at one point I thought "this is just like an amusement park ride".  And my first thought after finishing the course and giving Vent a nice neckrub to say thanks was "I wanna go again!!!"
I also just want to crow a little about my barn - I am so lucky to have a place where my ambitions and dreams are not seen as laughable, ridiculous or unrealistic but valid, special and laudable.  At any other barn, I would have been laughed out the door for wanting to debut at 60 cm instead of 80 cm (or train my own horse, for that matter).  At Equitec, I found not only friends who wanted to do the same but an instructor who encouraged us - better to ace 60 cm than to risk an elimination or worse yet, a fall at 80 cm.  It's truly a place to form, nurture and achieve your equine ambitions no matter how off the wall they may be with lots of support from administration and barnmates - the very opposite of what I've often experienced at other centers.  So whenever I gaze wistfully on some other club's covered and perfectly dimensioned dressage arena, jump course with self-draining geotextile footing, showers and dedicated changing rooms for humans, or picturesque mountain location, I remember that none of that can ever compare with the friendships I've forged in only a few years at Equitec.

Next stop, coming up November 19 - doing the 60 cm course with Starbuck and the 80 cm course with Vent or another one of Marina's lesson horses.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Rainy Days

In autumn I'm always struck by how much Spaniards are like Southerners regarding the weather.  Except where Southerners totally freak out about snow and seem to have had no prior experience negotiating it, Spaniards freak out about rain.  Driving in the rain?  If you venture out at all (people will actually call in late to work because "it's raining too hard, I can't drive") you have to go like 35 mph on the interstate, and people dodge puddles and do other crazy crazy stuff with their cars like, well, like Southerners in the snow.  No one dreams of walking without an umbrella even if it's only drizzling and once again, lateness due to "waiting for the rain to stop" is completely acceptable in social situations, since if your hair gets wet you are doomed to die of pneumonia.  And riding?  Forget about it!

I will say in the folks at my stable's defense that since it only rains like 15 days out of the whole year it doesn't make much sense to have things like covered or self-draining arenas and the sand's kind of thin on the ground.  Add that to the fact that the ground at our stable has a lot of clay in it and you get dangerously slippery footing even in the arena for a few days after a downpour, especially if your horse is both clumsy and prone to spooking.  It rained all day Sunday and Monday, so even though it was nice yesterday, riding in the fenced arena was out of the question and a couple of friends suggested going out on a trail ride.  Now I was at a wedding all day on Saturday and due to the rain, Starbuck hadn't gotten out of her paddock since Friday.  So I was a liiiiitle apprehensive about taking her out (roads! motorcycles! manhole covers! bikes! farm animals! trucks! barking dogs! big white canvas bags full of rubble on the side of the road!) after so many days without any exercise but wanted to get the "rainy" season off to a good start and said yes.

I shouldn't have worried.  Aside from a few snorts at some gigantic and fantastically smelly hogs we encountered and a few strides of "collected canter" on the way home she was as cool as a cucumber, even when we trotted along a gravel road passing people out walking with strollers and dogs (sometimes she gets a little strong at the trot out in the open).  She was relaxed - even lazy - on the way out and we practiced going first, second and last in line, passing the other horses and having them pass us, and the only worry she seemed to have was snatching fennel flowers as we rode past them.  I tried to remember to praise her as much as possible and we ended up having a really nice time.

I'm so proud and excited that we have reached this point and am looking forward to NOT having our training schedule put on pause for 3 days every time it rains this winter!

By the way on Sunday I have my first show jumping competition - not with Starbuck since she's still not 100% fit after taking time off for her backache / lameness thing, but with Vent, one of Marina's horses.  He's a stubborn little beastie right on the height line between pony and horse who I really adore riding - for a lesson horse, he's got a fair amount of "spark" and will dump you (or try to) if you piss him off.  Strangely enough I'm not nervous about this (yet).

Monday, September 22, 2014

Horsey Bachelorette Party

This weekend I participated in a horsey bachelorette party - I've been tagged in a lot of the photos on Facebook but wanted to "interpret" them on here for those of you who may be interested.  My friends Belén and Cynthia organized it all and I thought it was so original and fun that it needed to be immortalized :)  The blushing bride is my friend and stablemate María José whose wedding is next Saturday.

Since we always have a riding lesson on Saturday morning, we figured it would be easy enough to start the party there and just continue on for the rest of the day.  So while we were saddling up, we called her over and gave her her first test - she had to wear a garter, gloves and a veil during the lesson - doesn't she look cute?!  Lots of cries of "Viva la novia" (long live the bride) ensued, and made our lesson even more fun than usual.  I broke out my helmet cam and my brand new helmet strap Sergio gave me for my birthday (no more ribbons y'all!) and video'd the entire thing which you can see here.

After the lesson we went our separate ways to muck out stalls, groom, mix food and whatnot and then took María José up to the bar for a coke while some of the girls hid the rest of the tests around the stable.  Basically each test was tied to something around the stableyard with a ribbon and had the test itself as well as a clue as to the whereabouts of the next test enclosed in a brightly colored envelope.  First she had to succeed at the test and then she could read the clue to get to the next test.  The tests were organized as though she were preparing for her wedding - so the first one was "practice wearing your veil".

So once everything was in place, we called her back and gave her the clue to find her next test (rehearse the procession), which was that she had to make the stable's star stallion Chad walk with her 5 steps.  This was easily accomplished with the help of a few carob beans.  Then we all trooped to the paddock of Compay, the horse María José leases, where she had to "make sure they were soulmates and prove their complicity" by convincing him to lift one of his front feet for ten seconds (this is a "begging" habit he has which María José tends to scold him for).  At first it seemed like it wouldn't come off, but with Marina's advice she was able to get him to hold up first his right leg for a count of five, then he switched legs and held up the left one for another count of five.

She then had to prepare a "special meal" for "her guests" (in this case a couple of ponies) using three different kinds of feed which they had to eat up completely - this wasn't much of a test since we honestly don't have any very picky horses at the stable.  Then, since our stable's in an old orange grove, she had to find three oranges "since they've run out at the bar and can't make any more cocktails".  They weren't ripe yet so we just let her point three out to us.

Her next test was to "make all her guests feel welcome" and get the two potbellied pigs at the stable to come to her and stay still long enough for a photo, at first she was a little worried since they tend to be really screechy (the horses certainly seem to think they're carnivorous monsters) and she thought they might not be very tame but they are sweet, if morbidly obese, pigs and behaved very well.  She didn't even need food to get them to come to her.  After that, she had to "get the party started" by leading us all in a disastrous conga line to the parking lot where her next clue awaited.

Then we had an even sillier test - María José had to "make sure the party was jumping" by giving each of us a number from one to ten and then we had to invent a jumping course one by one to do on foot.  In other words, person # 1 (yours truly, thank God) had to choose one obstacle to jump, then person # 2 had to jump the first obstacle and then choose another one, then person # 3 had to jump the first two and choose yet another one and so on and so forth.  And once all of us had gone, the bride had to jump all of them as well as another of her choosing.  We had lots of fun imitating the horses we normally ride, with bucks, spooks, zigzagging before the jumps, etc.... although it was around 90º and superhumid so most people got over those kinds of capers after about the 4th jump ;)  It did make us all a little more aware of what we ask our horses to do for us in the summertime.

The last test was to "immortalize the moment" by arranging all her guests with the ribbons that had come with each test to make the outline of a horse - as you can see this was easier said than done especially since once again, it was like 90º out and humid, and staying in the sun holding ribbons after dancing the conga and jumping over obstacles felt pretty sucky compared to getting in the pool.

After all this, there was a fun "ending ceremony" where she had to match up photos of the horses at the stable to be "maids of honour", "groomsmen" and "guests" and finally we went to Belen's house for a dip in the pool and some pizzas.

All in all very silly and the most "G-rated" bachelorette party I've ever been to, but really a lot of fun and a day to remember fondly.