Wednesday, February 26, 2014


This is us a couple of years ago...

Trust is something that Starbuck and I still have to work on a lot.  To really get rid of her spookiness, I eventually need to prove to her that no matter what crazyness might be going on around us, I won't ever make her go anywhere truly perilous.  And I also need to be able to show her through my body language that what she sees as spooky (dogs barking, a flapping awning, garbage trucks) are not in fact anything to be worried about.  When we were out on our trail ride the other day Marina explained that Starbuck sees or hears something that scares her and however hard I fight it my immediate instinctual reaction is to tense up, which makes her think that I'm confirming the scariness of the object when in fact what I'm worried about is her reaction.  Marina broke it down as "you have to make her think that these scary things are like her own hallucinations - if she thinks that you don't see them at all she'll eventually start to ignore them."

But not being worried about her reaction is a lot easier said than done, especially for a nervous nellie like myself, so it also goes the other way - I need to be able to trust her as well.  And although technically last night's lesson was pretty disasterous I think we took a big step forward towards that goal.  Starbuck was a little spooky - at one point she actually bolted and we had to return to our "circle-circle-circle" routine for the first time since I changed to a bit - and I was a little tense both because of this and also for unrelated reasons.  So when Marina set up an excercise for jumps at a trot, the first few runs were pretty bad - Starbuck spooking in front of the bar and zigzagging in front of the jump, me leaning forward too soon and putting her weight on her forehand so that she runs through the jump instead of going over it, "goat jumps" as we call them here in Spain which is basically jumping from a standstill, me losing my balance and bumping her in the mouth with the bit - you get the picture.  After some coaching from Marina I was finally able to relax my body enough to go through the exercise without actually getting in Starbuck's way, but I was still far from happy with our performance.
The Exercise

The exercise was to ride an S-shape in trot through three low jumps - the first was a cross-rails obstacle to the left, then to loop back to a vertical bounce and then turn right to another cross-rails obstacle - see my lovely diagram above (I really should have been a graphic artist, dontcha think?)  Those little dots represent cones on either side to make sure we were straight through the bounce, and Marina asked some of the students with more reliable horses to close their eyes from cones to cones.  She explained that if you can see the jump, your body will automatically anticipate the jump and you'll lean forward too soon instead of letting the horse's movement "push" you into suspension.  If you can't see the jump, you have no option but to rely on "feel".  I liked this idea and so on our last run, I asked her if she thought it would be downright dangerous to take Starbuck through just the bounce with my eyes closed from cones to cones and when she said "no problem, go ahead" I took a deep breath and nudged her into trot.  We turned early and made it to the cones nice and straight, so I looked up ahead of the jump, closed my eyes and felt.  And we did the bounce pretty much perfectly!  Starbuck judged the distance perfectly, I moved when I was supposed to move, I didn't land hard on her back or bump her in the mouth afterwards and best of all I was rewarded by this amazing feeling of trust and accomplishment.  And after the lesson, Starbuck was rewarded with an extra large ration of the dried grass mix I give her as a treat.

In conclusion, I know it seems like a small achievement to some, but I think being able to ride my crazy little filly through a jump with my eyes closed is a major step forward for us on a path which will hopefully one day lead us to my ultimate goal - for us to trust each other enough to be able to do anything we set our minds to.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Out and about - again!

Nice face, Jose Luis...

That's better! 

So for the past two weeks Starbuck's been recovering from a slight lameness she had in one leg - I noticed that she would lie down and roll around in the dirt on one side, but on the other side she didn't want to.  But after a couple of days rest, she started to get better, so I just let her have a week and a half off.  On Friday I rode her and apart from some skittishness and a few characteristic not-looking-where-she's-going stumbles she was absolutely recovered.  Friday and Saturday we had really nice lessons - Friday after she settled down she worked very well and we did a very low jumping laboratory a few times where we were very fluid and forward, which was a nice surprise.  And Saturday we did an exercise cantering in a small circle (around 15 meters) over ground poles using our outside leg instead of the reins to stay on the circle, which also went much better than I expected.  

Also I ended up getting Starbuck a butterfly bit, which is generally used as a driving bit but which my instructor Marina favors over the Pelham since it can be used as a snaffle or with a little more leverage and is a little less severe.  So here she is modelling it - she really is much easier to ride in it.  Maybe in a few weeks I'll try the hackamore again to see if she responds just as well.  I think she looks really pretty here, but that might be just me ;-)

In other news, next Sunday there's what's called a "social" in Mallorcan horsey lingo - an informal show given by a stable which may or may not include people from other stables.  Ours doesn't include outsiders and since there's less pressure I think it's a perfect opportunity for Starbuck and my show debut.  So hopefully this time next week we'll have completed a 60 cm show jumping course in front of an audience without too much incident.

Today we went on a trail ride with Marina and some other folks, it went really well - Starbuck only gave a few spooks in places where it would be unrealistic NOT to expect her to spook like on a 15 foot wide road lined with yards filled with barking dogs on either side and motorcycles and cars passing us, or when another horse spooked and suddenly broke into a full gallop behind us.  She behaved really well when there were only a few isolated cars passing us and when we went by some other stables which have been iffy in the past.  So very very pleased with a fabulous weekend!

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Leaps and Bounds

Look at those pricked ears!  We sure do love being out and about :-)

Rode Starbuck again on Wednesday and it went just as well as Tuesday, we did some exercises attempting to lengthen / shorten strides at the canter between two ground poles.  So if you have two poles about 15-20 yards apart, and you canter between them counting strides and you end up with say 5, then the next time you try to squeeze 6 in, or you can lengthen your stride to try to get 4.  I find this exercise really difficult, especially since with the bit I was hesitant to use the reins as much as I normally would.  But I really enjoy it because it forces me to be rhythmic (we count the strides out loud and it seems silly but you pay way more attention to rhythm that way) and to really think hard about and try to visualize what I want Starbuck to do.

This "thinking" thing is a concept Marina introduced me to and that seemed like a bunch of hippie bunk at first but I find really works.  She regularly tells students on nervous horses "don't give any leg aids, just think "canter".  And I remember I was trotting with Starbuck for the second or third time and she said "think about her hind legs, visualize them coming further forward".  And what do you know, she started tracking up!  There was a horse at the beginning of the 19th century called "Clever Hans" who could do math - I mean pretty complicated arithmetic.  His handler would ask him say "What is six times seven divided by three" and Hans would tap his hoof 14 times.  And it wasn't just his handler - other people could ask him and damned if he didn't get the answers right something like 90% of the time.  So there were a bunch of trials and finally figured out that if the handler knew the answer to a question, so did Hans.  But if the handler didn't know the answer, Hans didn't either.  He was watching for the near invisible building up of tension in his handler as he tapped and its involuntary release when he reached the right number.  I think that horses are so sensitive to body language that they can really tell when we think "whoa", "canter" or even "make your stride go upwards instead of forwards".

But all this is easy to forget, especially when you're busy thinking "heels down, shoulders back, hips forward, hands still, thumbs up, shit someone's coming out of the bar, knees open, calm down Starbuck, breathe deep...".  And this exercise gives you 20 yards to put your full attention on "ONE, upwards, TWO, slower, THREE, upwards, FOUR, don't trot, don't trot!, FIVE, oh shit the pole".  And OK, we're not very good at it and we didn't ACTUALLY work in 6 canter strides without a stray trot stride, but we very nearly did and we both felt at the end of the class like we'd really worked hard and accomplished something.

Friday I lent Starbuck to my friend Virginia whose mare Coco is recovering from a booboo and can't be ridden at anything but a walk, and I rode Marina's lesson pony Vent ("Wind" in Mallorquín) without any stirrups for the whole lesson to work on my seat.  Which went very well except for the very end when I decided to try a jump - between the no stirrups thing and the fact that we took the jump from way too far off (still not very good at judging distances) I ended up making a crash landing.  But still proud of making it through the whole hour of walk - trot - canter without stirrups.  Virginia had a little trouble at the canter with Starbuck (I'm used to riding with very little contact and Virginia as an experienced dressage rider is used to using more) but schooled her very nicely in the lateral movements which is a huge help to me - I'm still not 100% sure when she's really crossing her legs or just scrunching her neck around and faking it.

And today we had a lovely morning lesson with markedly improved shoulder-ins and leg yielding and some very nice, fluid jumping from Starbuck, followed by an even lovelier hack out through the blossoming almond tree groves.  Starbuck for the most part behaved very well and only got a little worried a couple of times (mostly about the footing since the land had just been plowed and was very soft) and I was able to ride her along the tiny (like 300 yards) stretch of rural highway we have to go along and across, which is great because the last time I had to get off and walk with her.

The only negative issue to report is that I noticed this morning after our ride that the bit is apparently pinching the corners of her mouth because she had some sore spots there, so I'm going to add some bit guards and see if that helps things.

So all in all a terrific week filled with progress, fun and an object lesson in not being so reckless just to prove to myself and others I'm no chicken.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Back in the Saddle

I rode Starbuck yesterday for the first time since last week's disaster and it went really well!  I was a little (ok, a lot) apprehensive for two reasons - first she was pretty crazy when I longed her on Monday and second I was trying out the new bit (a mullen-mouthed pelham) my instructor Marina suggested to me.  I hadn't ridden Starbuck with a bit since we had that longeing incident a year and a half ago, and the pelham can be a lot more severe than the D-ring snaffle I started her in, not to mention the little hackamore I usually use.  So I wasn't sure whether to expect better responsiveness, a bucking bronco display or anything else in between, but I guess I got lucky because I ended up with a focused, thinking mare who consistently responded very well to even the lightest rein aids.

Before I go into details let me get my guilt and feelings of inadequacy as an owner-trainer out of the way.  I'm not terribly happy about the fact that I've changed bits instead of working through the bolting issues Starbuck's been starting to have lately.  I realize that the pelham can cause a great deal of pain if I'm not very, very careful.  And I'm well aware that her problems are in fact caused by my problems.  But I've become a little more skeptical of hackamores since Starbuck's "learned how" to set her head and "flip" one side so it doesn't affect her at all and a friend's hackamore (same model as mine, and newer) basically came apart while she was riding the other day.  And my goal is to use the pelham for a couple of months as a tool to accustom Starbuck once again to listen to really light rein aids even when freaking out, so we can safely return to the hackamore and even eventually be able to ride her in nothing more than a halter (right now she runs right through the halter).  So keeping in mind that right now I really want to keep riding her (safely) as often as I can, that I (and my instructor) consider myself to have pretty soft hands and above all that Marina knows WAY more about horses than I do, it's something I'm on board with.

Back to our lesson yesterday  - she first realized something was very different when we were warming up at a walk and she reached her nose down to rub it on her leg and bumped herself with the bit, at which she instantly shot her head back up and then did a little lick and chew.  Maybe this is too much anthropomorphism but I think it makes a huge amount of difference that this "initiation" was completely on her part, like walking into an electric fence, instead of it being "my fault" by pulling on the reins or similar.  I think that this may have been enough to give her a healthy respect for the bit, because she didn't pull or lean on my hands at all and consistently responded when I simply closed my fingers to ask her to slow down or stop.  The only difference I noticed from her normal behavior was more of a tendency to stop when doing sitting trot, although the fact that we were leading the class instead of following other horses may have had something to do with it.  During our first canter she definitely did a little head shaking and bit chomping, but I focussed on keeping my hands still and low and using only the lightest contact and she settled right down.  I actually think having something new inside her mouth kept her thinking and paying attention to me much more than she normally does, and a quick squeeze and release of the inside hand was enough to keep her from her normal "looking outside the ring for tigers" antics.  And when we could have had a spook (kids playing around near the bar with the pigs squealing for their supper) and she jumped in place, when I closed my fingers she just gave a lazy little piaffe for a few steps and then dropped her head like "OK, no problem".

Anyhow, after a decent warm-up we did an exercise where we first walked and then trotted over some ground poles while leg yielding, then we did an exercise where we had to leg yield from a cone to the other side of a pole, then walk straight along the pole, then leg yield in the other direction to another pole, walk straight along the other pole and then leg yield back around a final cone. Think dot space dash space dash space dot, zigzagging laterally between each one.  We did this in walk and trot and finally canter, and surprisingly she did really well at all except when cantering on the right lead which is always tricky for her.  And at the very end of the lesson I felt comfortable enough to do a little jump, just to prove to ourselves that it's no big deal.

So firmly back in the saddle and confident about our progress, even if by using a bit we have to take a few steps back to take one step forward.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Higher They Come, The Harder They Fall

Disclaimer: Sorry Mom and Dad if you freak out reading this, I did try to call and tell you first yesterday ;-P

Maybe this was a self-fulfilling prophecy, and maybe I jinxed myself.  But remember how I was a little bit worried about our recent progress and the inevitable downhill trend which would follow?  Well, it ended up being me going downhill (or rather, downhorse) pretty abruptly on Wednesday evening when Starbuck gave one of her patented sideways spooks coming out of a jump.  I remember trying to do my standard "land feet first" mojo but my foot was lodged in the stirrup just long enough for me to land firmly on my right hip, with my head bouncing down after it a few miliseconds later.

I jumped up as soon as I could and got right back on and did a couple of laps in canter for that old "get right back in the saddle" thing - I've learned the hard way that the longer you wait before riding again after a nasty fall, the scarier it is when you get back on.  But I think I realized that I was a little too woozy to finish the class and when the resident Boy Friday at our stable, José Luis, offered to cool her off for me I gratefully handed her over.

The next couple of hours are a little fuzzy, like after a night of really heavy drinking when you can only remember embarrassing splotches of the night before.  Thankfully my friends Virginia and Belén realized that maybe me driving home wasn't the best idea and jumped into action, with Virginia taking me to the emergency room to make sure everything was OK and Belén driving to get Sergio so he could pick up the car and meet me at the emergency room.  Thanks girls!

Anyhow the doctor checked me out and said he thought I had had a light concussion and was now fine, but ordered a CAT scan just in case which was a new experience for me.  He also kept me in observation for a couple of hours, during which time I obsessed about being exposed to the H1N1 flu which is going around Spain these days.  But they let me go home shortly after midnight, just in time to make it to the Burger King before it closed.  This is a tradition with us - my husband loves American fast-food, so whenever Sergio has to go to the hospital with me I take him to Burger King to try to make up for it.

The next day I found that some serious hip pain along with a stiff robocop neck had decided to join up with the headache, so even though I went to the office I went home at lunchtime and on Friday I decided to take advantage of the fact that I hardly ever take sick days and rest up.  Saturday I finally made it to the stable to clean her stall and prepare her feed for the next few weeks, although because of some residual hip ouchies I didn't ride.  I did get a brand spanking new helmet though (my old one had received a few knocks and I was already planning to replace it) which I'll try out today - I'm really looking forward to getting back in the saddle and it's a beautiful day, as soon as I publish this I'll head out to the stable.

So what are my reflections on all this?  I plan to once again ride one of Marina's more dependable horses in a lesson at least once a week, perhaps without stirrups to work on my balance.  Marina has recommended that since I had her wolf teeth pulled this year, I should try out a bit (maybe something with a little leverage like a Pessoa) on Starbuck to see if I can get her used to responding to light rein aids even when she's worked up.  Lately she's been pulling on me a lot every time she's feeling skittish or high spirited - I've been riding with a Hackamore for the past year and a half which she's always done quite well on, but since I've been building up her strength she's not responding to it like she used to.  I'd rather use the bit during a few months and go back to 100% light rein signals with the hackamore than have to pull on her whenever she wants to go faster than me.  And finally, I'm also quite obviously not going to be quite so overconfident when riding Starbuck.

But most of all I'm just hoping this valley won't be too deep or too lengthy and am looking forward to moving back up.