Saturday, January 25, 2014


 Giraffe lips

 Who me?  Trying to eat grass?!

In this crazy roller-coaster that is training a young horse (one week she's as smooth as silk and I'm on top of the world, the next week she's a rodeo bronc and I'm rolling in the dust), any visible improvement is a mixed blessing.  Sure, you're thrilled that you've finally worked through that rough spot and In this crazy roller-coaster that is training a young horse (one week she's as smooth as silk and I'm on top of the world, the next week she's a rodeo bronc and I'm rolling in the dust), any visible improvement is a mixed blessing.  Sure, I'm always thrilled that we've finally worked through that rough spot and that there's something new (like not getting bucked off on the scary - oops I mean "left" - side of the arena) that we can enjoy doing together.  It's what's kept me going for 2 and a half years and what will hopefully keep me going for many more.  But I also have in the back of my mind a little voice which reminds me that after each summit we reach will necessarily come a valley which in some cases seems to be much deeper and longer than it has any reason to be.  

Of course, it works the other way as well, so when we're having a really bad streak I'm always bouyed up by the certainty that things have to get worse before they get better.  It's easy to get frustrated when your horse seemingly "unlearns" something they were doing perfectly well a week ago, but over time I've learned to recognize the "worse" phase as a sign of good things to come.

John Lyons, a trainer whose literature has helped Starbuck and I immensely, has described the typical equine learning cycle as "Bad --- Good --- Worse --- Better --- Not So Bad --- Learned !" and I've found this to be pretty much true.  On the spooking thing (any spook which causes Starbuck to go somewhere I don't want her to is immediately followed by circles in place and quickly returning back where we started) we seem to have gotten through the "Good" and the "Worse" phases and so if this holds true, right now we're on the "Better" phase.  Of course, there could always be another "Worse" phase lurking ahead but honestly we've had such a good week that I'm letting myself be optimistic.

We had lessons on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and even though she had plenty of energy and I could feel that she was worried about the many monsters lurking just outside the arena, she had very few spooks and made an obvious effort to listen to me and keep herself under control.  We've been working on a cloverleaf pattern over low jumps and I was able to do it several times on a loose rein, and I'm mostly able to rate her speed at a canter with my seat.  On Friday evening, she didn't spook even once, and on one go we did the exercise even better than some of the lesson horses.  And the photos are from a short trail ride we took after our lesson this morning - at one point we had to ride down a deserted country road in between two rows of houses with loads of dogs barking on either side, and all of a sudden there were like 5 cars coming from both directions and even some guy riding his bike with a miniature doberman running beside him on a leash.  And we survived!  There was definitely a spook and a little cantering in place, but I got her under control in a matter of seconds and absolutely nothing happened.  Tomorrow I plan to take her out again to see what new improbable convergence of scary things we can find.

But essentially, roller coaster or no, I'm really excited that we have finally reached a point where I am actually enjoying riding her every single time.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

A glimpse of Spring

Lessons were cancelled due to rain but I decided to head out to the stable anyway and boy am I glad. The rain stopped on my drive over and my friend Virginia and I decided to go on a trail ride, where we were pleasantly surprised by the first almond trees blooming! So I thought I'd share some photos of my lovely Saturday morning and of the promise of Spring.

So here you have almond blossoms,  Starbuck enjoying her post-ride fresh ryegrass treat, more almond blossoms, one of the stable's orange trees and Starbuck trying on her new flysheet. Note that even tied to her stall, she managed to stain it in the first five seconds. That's my girl ;p

By the way she behaved really well on the trail ride, I got off and walked her across the one-lane highway we have to cross because she was worried about the traffic and slipping on the asphalt (my farrier forgot to put studs or whatever they're called in English on her shoes last time), but otherwise she was really relaxed and brave, not to mention a fantastic energetic walk.  And we saw the cutest baby goat!

Thursday, January 16, 2014


I look like such a good, calm little girl!

Since I ended up making yet another crash landing last night (no harm done apart from a sore foot - I'm getting better at falling on my feet) and Marina made me "provoke" Starbuck into spooking to practice getting her back under control for nearly the entire lesson I decided it would be a good time to revisit my musings on that four-letter-word which is the bane of equestrians worldwide.  Nope, it's not "poop" nor "cash" (although those are pretty baneful), but "fear".  Insidious and contagious, it worms itself into your consciousness and slowly eats away at the joy and freedom that drew us to riding in the first place and bit by bit converts "passion" and "fun" into "hobby" and then "obligation".

Obviously in the past two and a half years I have had to overcome some major fear issues just to be able to start and keep riding my crazy little filly, but I still have lots of mental and emotional work to do, especially since my reactions to fear nearly always make things worse instead of better.  I would love to be one of these people who are galvanized by fright into efficient clarity of mind, but I'm not.  Instead of whipping into heroic action and doing just the right thing at just the right time, I freeze and tense up and get shaky hands and snap at people.

Coincidentally however, just yesterday I read this article and had jotted down my thoughts shortly before the lesson, so I was able to be much more philosophical than usual about last night's spooks and Marina's impromptu instructions.  The instructions, by the way, were to ride on the scary side of the arena keeping close to the fence and when she shies, trot with purpose back to where we were at before the spook and circle Starbuck in place there until she calms down and then let her rest for 30 seconds before going right back to what we were doing before all of this.  The first time I was worried that she might trip or freak out even more but she did fine and calmed down quicker than I expected to.  And even better, after the third spook+circlecirclecircle cycle, she licked her lips and dropped her head - hopefully a surefire sign that she was starting to get the picture.  And in fact she spooked very little after that, and without having to run halfway across the arena.

At any rate, without further ado here are my notes on the "10-step-deal-with-your-fears" program:

* Riding outside stable grounds
* Riding on scary side of the arena

* Starbuck might run into traffic
* I might fall off and Starbuck run away
* Starbuck might slip or rear and fall on top of me
* Starbuck might get out of control and hurt someone or destroy someone's property
* We might cause another rider's horse to throw them

* Starbuck might run into traffic - if she had a bad spook, I think this is possible, especially since she's not particularly scared of cars.  This is a legitimate concern.
* I might fall off and Starbuck run away - When I fall off in the arena, she stays with me.  And since we always trail ride with other horses, I'm pretty sure she would stay with them instead of run away.  Not a legitimate concern.
* Starbuck might slip or rear and fall on top of me - This isn't likely to happen at a walk or trot, and I'm not likely to canter on a slippery surface, but both of us are pretty clumsy and I wouldn't put it past her to take off at a gallop after a spook.  This is unlikely but a legitimate concern.
* Starbuck might get out of control and hurt someone or destroy someone's property - As I think she would stay close if I fell off, this isn't very likely.  Not a legitimate concern.
* We might cause another rider's horse to throw them - This hasn't happened yet and in any case depends on the other riders - in theory non-expert riders will be on dependable horses and horses more likely to be influenced by one of Starbuck's spooks will be ridden by people who know how to ride and accept the risk.  While it could theoretically happen I honestly don't think it's my responsability and thus is not a legitimate concern.

* Riding with spooky horses nearby
* Riding on slippery footing
* Riding in traffic, crowds or closed spaces

* Seeing Starbuck is calm
* Being near other calm horses I know will not spook
* Getting Starbuck's attention

* "Practice" getting spooks under control (circling, posture and body relaxation, shoulder-in)
* Practice having correct posture at all times (open knees, dropped heels, shoulders back, hips forward, butt tucked)
* Breathing exercises before and during ride
* Call "the scary side" something else, like "the side they serve booze on" or "the lovely historic mallorcan farmhouse side" or just "the left side"

* Body gets tense
* Hands shake
* Heart pounding

* My goal is to calmly maintain control of and enjoy riding Starbuck outside the stable grounds and on the scary side of the arena.

1.- Breathing exercises - at tying post, after mounting and when I feel myself getting tense.
2.- Practice techniques for spook control without spooky horses in the arena.
3.- Spend time desensitizing Starbuck on scary side of arena.
4.- Cool down after lessons riding in parking lot and roads right outside the stable grounds.
5.- Go on short trail rides with only calm, dependable horses.

Honestly after putting my thoughts in order in this way, I really do feel more capable of dealing with our current "fear plateau" and am excited have some good goals to work on in the next few weeks.  I'll keep you updated.

Friday, January 10, 2014


Lately I've been thinking a lot about this blog.  A good friend of mine has acquired a 3 year old just barely green broke filly and has been experiencing many of the same things I went through a couple of years ago, which is really bringing it all back.  On the one hand, I get really nostalgic and sappy thinking of my little girl growing up but on the other hand, I'm oh so glad to have (hopefully) most of Starbuck's filly antics in the past.  I mean, we have literally a lifetime of work ahead of us and she's still a silly, spooky little thing, but it's obvious that she's really starting to enter the world of mare-dom.  So I thought I'd update it at least with our most recent progress in the hopes of starting the blog back up, if only to be able to spill my guts every now and then about some particularly cathartic success or failure and keep a kind of schooling diary.

So here's where we are now.  First me - I am a lot more confident and balanced riding Starbuck, which is good because she still likes to throw in a buck or a spook every now and then to mix things up.  I've also mostly dealt with my fear issues which I never talked about much on the blog but were definitely there.  Part of this is confidence in my riding and in Starbuck, but I like to think that another part is an improved ability to "talk myself down" and relax my body even when scared shitless.  I don't mean to say I'm a great rider by a long shot - I'm still far from even an independent seat, just that I don't fall off as easily as I used to.  In Starbuck's multiple injuries and illnesses this and last year I've been taking jumping lessons with school horses and can now stay on without interfering too much for a 80 cm course of 6 jumps or so. 

Now Starbuck - earlier this year my vet and I detected some back pain and had a physical therapist give her an adjustment.  The physical therapist told me she had really weak abdominal muscles, so thanks to that I spent a good two months with lots of different longeing exercises over small hills and cavaletti, asking her to keep her head down so her hind legs could really come up under her body.  Then the poor thing got two abcesses - one in each hind hoof - and once those were drained my vet advised me to shoe all four hooves, not just the front ones.  So fully recovered and newly shod, my instructor Marina and I have spent the last 6 weeks getting her in the best shape she's ever been and trying to be a little more military with obedience.  She suddenly stops to scratch her nose on her foreleg, or breaks gait from a trot or a canter?  Sharp tap with the crop!  We're trotting along the scary side when a kid runs out of the bushes and she starts to tapdance?  Shoulder-in until she relaxes!  We're headed back to her paddock and she veers off to eat some grass?  10 steps backwards!  She throws a buck at the canter?  More forward!  Honestly, she behaves pretty well, but she is the poster child for "give her an inch and she'll take a mile" and she's also easily bored and distracted, so the theory is that eventually with so much correction she'll give up and realize that life is just so much easier if she'll calm down and pay attention to me instead of everything else in the wide wide world.

And indeed all of this discipline and the long hours I was able to put in at the stable over the holidays are really paying off - I now actually enjoy riding her 95% of the time and the other 5% is at least intelectually interesting (why on earth did she do THAT?  How can I fix it?).  I ride in lessons 3-4 times a week and on my own another 2-3 times a week, which doesn't leave me much time for anything else but is exactly what I want to be doing right now.  I've also let a couple of other folks ride her - a teenage girl who used to ride an even more challenging mare before she was sold and this crazy fearless guy from my jumping class.  So she has things mixed up and gets a break from my own personal body problems every now and then.  We're working on jumping fluidly and can do about 60 cm well.  In the dressage line, I use a lot of lateral movements to get her attention and build up those abdominal muscles and am trying to work on balancing impulsion with relaxation.  And we've been on several hour-long or so trail rides where she's behaved surprisingly well.  She's not quite what you'd call rhythmic in her gaits and like I said she still spooks if given half a chance, but the difference between what we used to be able to do and what we can do now is like night and day.

So that's it for now, I'll throw in a couple of recent pictures for good measure and hopefully it won't be so long before I post again.  Happy trails!
We have new dressage boots (front) and a new orange saddlepad!!!!

Devil horse will eat your soul!!!!