Monday, March 31, 2014


Today was one of those days.  We were all alone at the stable and Starbuck was spooky even while I was grooming her, snorting at the shepherd and his goats (they graze around the stable grounds sometimes) which she's seen a thousand times.  Then as soon as I mounted up, her friend Coco came back from a trail ride and Starbuck wanted to gallop over to see her instead of warming up calmly in the arena.  When we started trotting, she noticed Coco making friends with another horse and got jealous and crow-hopped around for a few minutes and then a car honking its horn almost caused her to lose it completely, she was trembling and snorting and prancing around with her head in the stars like the freakiest of freaked out arabians.  Yep, one of THOSE days.

So I take it as a mark of our growth that we were able to have a pretty normal ride besides all this.  When she wanted to gallop off, we worked walking sideways over poles on the ground to get her focussed on my aids.  When Coco and the other horse were squealing at each other, we did 10 meter circles at the cardinal points of a larger 30 meter circle and then figure eights until she chilled out and started listening.  And when she freaked out over the car honking, we worked on trot-canter-trot transitions until she wanted to slow down.

And after all of this, I felt confident enough to ride her around the stable grounds and then we actually left the stable alone for the first time!  She was a little hesitant but went forward when I asked her to and behaved very well aside from wanting to trot on the way back and trying to jump the paved entrance.  We only went about 300 yards from the stable gate since I didn't want to push my luck, but it was a good first step.

A year ago, I probably wouldn't even have ridden her after the spookiness at the tying post.  And six months ago I would only have mounted up after longeing her and then I would have waited for things to calm down before starting to trot and definitely wouldn't have cantered after the horn honking scariness.  I'm really pleased that I felt so secure and in control of the situation, even with Starbuck in prancy-mode.  We've come a long way, baby ;-)

Saturday, March 29, 2014

A Pleasant Surprise

Go ahead girl, you've earned it :)

Yesterday was a fabulous sunny spring day so I was really looking forward to my riding lesson this morning, but when I woke up it was cold, cloudy and really windy!  Now, this week I've had a fair number of social commitments so I hadn't ridden her since Tuesday and I really wasn't in the mood for a stressful ride, but I decided to bite the bullet and ride Starbuck anyway.  And I received an extremely pleasant surprise - she behaved extremely well and we had a really nice lesson!

"The after class grass club"

Of course, there were a couple of spooks but they were prompted by very strong gusts of wind whipping up sand-devils and things like that, and the best thing was that the spooks were controlled - sure she broke into a canter a couple of times but within two or three strides she was back to a trot and focused on the exercise at hand again.  I also felt a lot more secure and able to release through my seat - I read a great post on Horse Listening, one of my favorite horse blogs, the other day about the ability to tell your horse "Yes" or "Good girl" in lots of different ways, and during the spooks I was very concious of trying to release both with my seat and with my hands as soon as Starbuck showed the first sign of getting herself under control.  Very happy about our work today, and feeling like all our hard work is really paying off.
Giant horse-shaped insect?  Medieval battle gear?  Or just Starbuck in her fly mask?

I also got Starbuck a fly mask the other day and tried it on her today, at first I think she thought it was a halter because she stood still for a while like if she were tied to something, but then she seemed fine with it.  Hopefully she'll wait a while before absolutely destroying it, I feel a little bad for making her wear something so goofy looking but she's already starting to get bald spots from scratching her fly bites, and it's not even April.

What's that rectangular black thing you have in your hand?  Can I eat it?

Lastly, I've decided to take some classes at another stable which is really close to mine - I saw that they had a Groupon for 5 classes for 30€ and today I walked over to ask them if I could do the classes with Starbuck and they said yes!  I think it'll be a really great way to introduce Starbuck to the idea of working in another arena, without the stress of a show.  Of course, getting another perspective on my riding will be great as well!  I'm very excited to get started and see how I like the lessons although I'm also a little nervous about Starbuck acting up or having the teacher call me out on my terrible posture.  We'll see how it goes.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Weekly Update

Lots of stuff to catch up on here, I took last Thursday and Friday off and was too lazy all weekend to write any of it down.  So here goes:

I had a nice trail ride last Sunday (not yesterday but a week before), this time neither of Starbuck's "big sisters" (best friend Coco and next-door neighbor Melyne) came along so I was a little worried about how she'd do.  But she really behaved quite well and only got a little out-of-control when we were trotting homewards - I think the adrenaline of trotting plus heading home plus lunchtime plus traffic was a little too exciting for her.  But nothing more challenging than a few more spooks than we had heading out, so I think we're really progressing on the trail rides.  Also without meaning to we ended up wearing parcheesi colored t-shirts, which was fun.

Rode on my own on Monday - Starbuck worked extremely well and was an absolute pleasure to ride.  We did a figure of eight exercise where we cantered around the extremeties and then transitioned to a trot on the diagonal, then back to a canter on the new lead.  It obviously wasn't easy for her but I didn't realize how hard it must have been until afterwards when I realized that she had sweat quite a bit on her hindquarters and not at all anywhere else. So I think this will be a good exercise to add to my toolbox for those days when she has energy to burn, and remember not to do too many repetitions.

Tuesday I had a normal lesson which I don't remember very well what we did, but it went tolerably well.  Wednesday I came down with the cold that ate Chicago and stayed in bed all day, but Thursday I was well enough to get out to the stable in the morning, which was fabulous since Marina had the time and inclination to give me a lunge lesson.

What an incredible lesson - after a few "laps" she told me to close my eyes and tie my reins to the saddle so they wouldn't get in the way and I did the rest of the lesson with no hands.  I've never ridden much without hands - a few canter laps with my arms up like airplane wings going "wheeee" is about the extent of my expertise so this was pretty new for me.  And boy was it a terrific experience!  Without the weight of my arms pulling my shoulders forward I very naturally reverted to the correct "heels - hips - shoulders" vertical position and found myself way more balanced.  And keeping my eyes closed really made me rely on feel alone to stay with Starbuck's movements, although I had to peek from time to time to keep from getting dizzy.  It was really liberating and I was able to "memorize" the sensation so that I can try to duplicate the same position when I'm riding the rest of the time.

Note - this is NOT the position to duplicate ;-}

So we worked on rising trot with "cycling" motion in arms and legs which is awkward at first but really helps you get in touch with the oscillating movement of the horse's back instead of just your standard up-down, sitting trot without stirrups working on letting my hips be carried forward, not backward, by Starbuck's movement and then walk and trot without stirrups letting my legs swing forward and backward once again in reaction to the horse's trunk swinging back and forth.    Finally we did some canter - now with stirrups since at this point I was a little dizzy - but once again it was wonderful to close my eyes, hold out my arms and focus only on following Starbuck's movement.  Imagine that - cantering on my crazy little filly with no hands and eyes closed!  It's the closest I've felt to being a centaur since I've grown up.

Things I learned during this lesson which are important to remember in the future:

  • I have a lot more innate balance than I thought I did.
  • The weight in my arms draws my shoulders forward.  If I keep my elbows parallel to my body, I will naturally sit up straighter than if I move them farther forward.
  • If I allow Starbuck's movement to push my hips forward naturally instead of pushing them back, she moves better and I stay in balance more easily.
  • I could tell when I was on the right diagonal at a rising trot going to the right with my eyes closed, but going to the left I wasn't able to feel it as easily.
  • Going to the left at a sitting trot, where I felt more comfortable and safer, Marina pointed out that I wasn't letting my inside hip swing forward as loosely as going to the right, where I felt a little bouncy and off-balance.

Then fairly successful lessons on Friday and Saturday - Friday we had a bit of a runaway moment where I lost my stirrups, kept jabbing Starbuck in the side when trying to recover them and finally figured out that since obviously I had been cantering around without stirrups for a while, that stopping, not getting my stirrups back, was the # 1 priority.  Another lesson for the future.  I also got a new bridle on Friday - the one I've been using is the perfect length for the hackamore but a little too short for the bits.  It was 40% off at a tack store which is closing and is real pretty - black with white stitching.  Also, this way I don't have to change from bit to hackamore every other time I ride ;-)

Saturday was kind of rainy and windy and all of the horses, not just Starbuck, were kind of antsy.  She was definitely rarin' to go - I had to throw my crop away after a few minutes - and wasn't completely comfortable with her new bridle (it has a noseband, which I've never used in the past) but I did my best to keep her attention on me and in comparison with some of the other horses, she was actually pretty calm.  Even so, I was surprised when one of the other students mentioned how well Starbuck was behaving - I guess we must be doing something right if we at least look like we have things under control.

Which brings us to yesterday, which was superwindy.  What with the wind and me not feeling like getting into a fight with Starbuck, I decided not to ride.  You gotta pick your battles.  Anyhow after cleaning her paddock we spent an hour "sharing territory" while I re-read part of an Aubrey-Maturin novel, then I longed her for a while on the scary side of the arena working on lots of transitions.  These are things I always say I'll do when I have some free time and I think it's good for her to have some exercise without me weighing her down from time to time.  Sometimes it's hard to believe that we've finally reached the point where we do much more ridden work and have to make time for groundwork - even a year ago I wasn't sure we'd ever reach that goal.  Yay progress!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Seeing Double

It's that time of year again... spring blossoms, longer days, warmer weather... but for those of us who have pets with fur it's shedding season!  I honestly think Starbuck must lose about a pound of fur every time I brush her.  Also, her coat yellows in the sun but comes in pretty dark so in spring she always seems to have spots, especially where she rubs herself to scratch those itchy fly bites. Either spots or the mange, I haven't quite decided which. So yesterday I took advantage of an especially warm day to give her a bath and take some photos, then noticed something funny when I looked at the photos later, especially with this one.

To start with, cover just her head and neck. Then cover the rest of her and just look at the head and neck - she looks like a completely different horse! Of course, the "not quite dry yet" streak doesn't help things, but she really is several different colors right now. I'm looking forward to that sleek summer coat and hope that with the flysheet we'll be able to keep her all purty this summer.

In other news, she's been behaving quite well, we've had a couple of really nice classes this week. I think switching between the two bits and the hackamore is having the desired effect and keeping her guessing - she hasn't been pulling as much. I'm also trying to use the reins differently - less steady contact and more leg to get her to lighten up. I don't think she's quite ready to go back to always using the hackamore, but at least I'm no longer worried that we might have to use something even stronger.

I also noticed something kind of strange with her hooves - she was shod last Thursday and in admiring her lovely new shoes I see that she has a kind of crack coming up from her heel and running parallel to the coronet. According to a quick Google search, this type of hoof crack is typically caused by an old abscess growing out, which makes sense for the hind foot (the white one) but is surprising to me for the front foot. Maybe an abscess and not generic "back pain" could be the cause for her intermittent lameness several months ago - at any rate I've asked my farrier to weigh in and give me his opinion to see what the problem is.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Try Different Things

This is Gladys with my mom standing next to her and aunt (to whom I owe this photo) sitting on the grass

My great-grandmother Gladys was a pretty amazing woman.  Born to a middle class family in a small town in low-country South Carolina, one might have expected her to lead a pretty uninteresting life, but she was determined to live the way she wanted to - travelling to places like Bermuda and pre-revolution Cuba (we still have some of the letters a lovesick Cuban she met while she was there sent her), entering dance contests and marrying a man whose job (a highway construction engineer) would take her all over the state.  And even though she passed away when I was a teenager and as far as I know she wasn't particularly horsey, I still have her to thank (vía my mother) for one of the best pieces of advice anyone could have given me about training horses or life in general.

I don't remember exactly which context it came up in, but years ago my mom and I were talking one day about caring for children - maybe when I was teaching English and had some challenging younger pupils.  I've never been much of a hand at keeping kids in line and my mom is the exact opposite - children are drawn to her and she knows how to maintain their interest so that they aren't even tempted to misbehave in a way which seems downright magical to me.  So when I came to her for help she passed on her grandmother's advice to her from years ago - the three magical words "Try different things".  Of course, at the time this wasn't the answer I was looking for - what I really wanted was a sort of magic bullet to keep kids enraptured with my presence with little or no effort on my part.  But what I realize now is that this attitude was really the problem - if I wasn't willing to expend the effort to try to keep a child's attention, how could I possibly expect them to go the extra mile and pay any attention to me?

I now (thank God) no longer have to deal with children except at holidays and when we have visitors, but those three little words have stuck with me through the years and when I got Starbuck and started reading up on training methods, I was so glad to have that advice.  Because what I've figured out is that although I really respect John Lyons as a trainer and I've learned so much from him, his methods just don't work for us 100% of the time.  Same goes with Pat Parelli, Alois Podhajsky, Carolyn Resnick, Reiner Klimke, you name it.  There are all these books and websites with surefire methods for training horses and I love the fact that all of this is available and am constantly reading up on new training theories and techniques.  But sometimes these recommendations just aren't right for you, or the horse, or your situation, or whatever.  So maybe what ALWAYS works for Carolyn Resnick because she has an amazing sense of timing and great connection with the horse, won't always work for me because I don't have the same talents.  I often find that even the most inspired method from an amazing trainer just isn't working, which can get frustrating until I remember my three magic words and I try different things.  In the end, trial and error takes longer and requires a lot more effort than just sticking entirely to one training method but I learn so much and like to think that I don't waste too much time (or Starbuck's good will) persisting in an attempt which just isn't working.

For instance this bit thing.  I had initially hoped that by using a stronger bit, Starbuck would become more sensitive and reactive to my rein aids so that I could go back to using the hackamore with a light contact at all times.  And this seemed to work great for a while, I've ridden her for a couple of weeks with the butterfly bit and at first it was a downlight delight.  But last week we had a couple of iffy moments culminating in a rodeo ride around the arena at a full gallop with me losing my stirrups and hanging on to her mane for dear life - the only way I could finally get her to stop was when she nearly ran into another horse.  And it's not like I had the reins flopping around, there was a definite strong contact the entire time but she just ran right through it.  And even when she's not freaking out I've noticed her starting to need more contact when she's fired up.  So graduating to a stronger bit?  Not working for us, but no biggie - it's just time to try something different.

So here's my new plan - to keep her guessing I'm going to alternate between the old D-ring snaffle I started her in, the hackamore and the butterfly bit.  No more than two days in a row with any of them for at least a few weeks.  I'm going to work a lot more on activating her hindquarters to keep her from leaning on my hands - the second she starts to get heavy on the bit I give her the aid for shoulder-in or haunches in until she lightens up.  And finally, I have to be really really careful to not give her the kind of constant contact she can "get used to".  We already started yesterday with the snaffle - she was obviously a little surprised by the change but responded pretty well.  There were a couple of scary moments where it would have been much easier to pull on the reins rather than to give her more leg and use less contact, but it worked and she lightened up nicely.  Hopefully in a few weeks I'll be on here complaining about something completely different and this whole running through the contact thing will be forgotten.

And even if we are still working on this weeks or months from now, we'll just keep on trying different things.