Monday, July 7, 2014

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch...

In the past couple of weeks since my Gredos trip, I've been too busy to write much thanks to a visit from my mother-in-law (who in opposition to all laws of nature I adore) but I've thankfully been able to cram in a fair amount of quality time with Starbuck since I took a couple of days off work.  Anyhow here's an update on what I've been up to.

The morning after the Trashumancia ride ended I had a few hours before I had to take the bus back to Madrid, so I asked José for a dressage lesson and he very generously agreed.  I rode Gala, a lovely blue roan PRE mare who belongs to trail ride companion Carmen and her daughter Celia.  She was very light both in the hand and off the leg as well as supercomfortable (although that may have had a lot to do with using José's superfancy dressage saddle) and a real pleasure to ride.  The lesson went really well - mostly circle work trying to maintain a good rhythm and keeping my and her posture somewhat correct.  He later sent me a video he took of us and I was really surprised at how well I was able to sit the trot - I certainly didn't feel as stable as I look ;P

At any rate here are some of the instructions he gave me to practice back home, which I've been trying to keep in mind:

  • Sit deeper in the saddle to maintain stability, control movement with abdominal muscles, shoulders up, back and open, outside rein firmer than inside rein, create flexion with inside leg, use less heel and more whole leg, work towards becoming lighter with whip and using leg less often and less brusquely
  • Don't bring hands downwards toward knee, leave hands at withers height and to lower horse's head open (straight outward) inside rein leaving outside rein stable
  • Elbows bent to absorb shock from the reins and at my side (no chicken wings!), fingers closed and only opened to momentarily reward for the right response

When I got back from Gredos and went to see Starbuck I could really tell she had been bored and itchy - her bugbites were worse than ever, even with the blanket and mask.  She can reach with her hind legs to scratch her face like a dog, and had some big patches on her cheeks that she had rubbed raw.  This, coupled with the fact that riding lessons have been moved back an hour (from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m.) for July and August, made me decide to re-start our three-showers-and-aloe-a-week routine.  As far as I can tell this is paying off pretty well, she still has several bites which are raw but at least they look less inflamed.  I also found an anti-itch cream at the tack store I decided to try and so far it seems to work - at least yesterday for the first time in months she wasn't completely obsessed with herself against the tying post.  I really hope it does work, I feel awful every time I scold her for scratching herself and when I think of how uncomfortable she must constantly be.

Since I've spent some time at the beach with Sergio's mom, one of the things I have had time for is some serious reading about dressage (my new obsession).  So I've read Down to Earth Dressage by Carl Hester which I found really useful, sensible and eminently readable, Riding in the Moment: The Hidden Language of Dressage by Michael Schaffer which was a little hippy-dippy for my taste but had some really interesting ideas I learned a lot from, especially in its analysis of FEI rules and guidelines and Dressage for the Not-So-Perfect Horse by Janet Foy which for me was the least useful of the three, since it was more geared towards succeeding in competition (US competition at that) and less towards just ending up with a horse who's a joy to ride.

And of course with all this newfound knowledge in hand I went to the stable with the daft idea that my aids would have magically improved via osmosis and that Starbuck would simply fall into that magical space in front of the leg but behind the bit.  Which of course after nearly two weeks without riding her did not happen.  She was the same old Starbuck, lazy and dull and then spooky and chargy.  In between the spooks and bucks we worked on the exercises José taught me to get her to work forward and down, lifting her back and teaching her to relax and stretch but I was having trouble telling if she was really progressing.  Then trying to work on circles with Marina I realized I was having to contort my body just to get her to bend correctly onto the circle at the same time as I was pushing her forward and I just sort of gave up.  "I feel like I'm telling her 'Don't do A, do B' but I'm not making B comfortable enough for her for it to be convincing", I said to Marina.  "My body just isn't giving her the aids right and I'm not sure if I'm just making this more unpleasant for both of us".  Well, Marina gave me a firm talking-to (she gets really pissed off when people give up or say they can't) and I agreed to keep trying but was secretly unconvinced, and went home worrying about whether all I was doing with this dressage stuff is to make Starbuck hate me.

Until I read the following passage on Dr. Thomas Ritter's blog which really shed light on the fact that this is not easy and will never be easy, which is part of what makes it so fulfilling.  And I do care enough to make sacrifices, like feeling supremely physically uncomfortable while trying to find a seat which is more comfortable for Starbuck, or like feeling unsure about whether the particular direction I'm heading in is really the best one and trusting the people who know more about horses than I do to guide me.  I'm so glad I found this, it's really given me a new outlook and some much-needed motivation - I'm very easily frustrated and discouraged by not being good at things, and as clumsy as I am I'm definitely not as good at riding as I think I should be.
Nobody can have good performances all the time. Each high quality performance has to be earned by many practice sessions that bring us face to face with our limits and our current shortcomings. C.A.Huang & J.Lynch quote the Buddhist proverb "The arrow that hits the bull's eye is the result of a hundred misses" in their book "Thinking body, dancing mind" (1992, 93). This captures very well the essence of what I am trying to say. Every correctly executed half halt, e.g. is the result of many others in which the timing, coordination, and intensity of the aids was incorrect, which led to completely different results than we had intended."

P.T. SUDO talks about the same phenomenon in his book "Zen Guitar", 1998, 44: "Frustration results when the body will not perform as the mind directs, or the mind becomes confused about what it wants the body to do. These confrontations are an integral part of training. They bring us face to face with our motivations and limitations: Why are we putting in all these hours of practice? Why do we desire what we desire? Are we willing to make the sacrifice necessary to progress? Are we asking more of our body than it can do?"

As usual this is getting really long, so I'm going to try to wrap things up.  I went shopping on Saturday and apart from the itch cream got a long-desired leather halter - I'm really tired of the way that my beautiful new brightly coloured nylon halters instantly turn brownish or grayish as soon as they've been worn more than once.  I am determined to take good care of it and oil it at least once a month.  I think Starbuck looks really good in it - here are some photos.

Along with the halter I got a nice rope lead which Starbuck promptly broke when I took her to my last class at Sa Fita on Saturday.  I went with a friend and tied Starbuck to a tie ring mounted on a wall while I helped my friend tack up her horse.  What I didn't realize, and what Starbuck did, is that on the other side of the wall was a bulldozer doing some heavy duty landscaping.  Luckily she waited until I was next to her and could grab her halter before she could get away and mix it up with the other horses.  And luckily it was the lead which broke and not the halter (or her neck).  Her little escapade was a good indicator as well of how the lesson would go - she did some really good work especially while jumping, but at one point when my instructor at Sa Fita, Toni, told me not to hold her back so much she decided that that was a cue for some serious rodeo bucking.  Honestly I wasn't sure if I'd be able to stay aboard, but I simply stayed in two-point and turned her in a circle until she went back to a decent canter, and the rest of the horses apparently weren't even phased by it so I guess no harm no foul, and a memorable way to end our Sa Fita lessons.

And finally, yesterday we went on a really lovely trail ride.  It's the longest ride we've done so far - about 8 km in 2 1/2 hours - and it also goes along about a 1 km stretch of rural highway so I was a little unsure of how she'd do, but I figured she was ready for it and that I really need to get out more often and push the envelope a little if I ever want her to be able to do a Gredos ride, or the Camì de Cavalls.  There were a couple of spooks here and there and when we trotted she definitely wanted to go faster (think full-out gallop) than I wanted her to go, but for the most part she behaved like a complete pro and there were several times during the ride when she was on a completely loose rein.

Our crowning moment of glory was when René (a German guy who went with us on his horse Rodrigo) wanted to gallop and Silke (his girlfriend who was riding one of Marina's horses) and I didn't, so we decided to try staying behind while he went ahead.  This is really hard for horses - they feel like their herd's being split up and that they've lost a lot of security - so it was a real test for Starbuck, especially since she was in front and didn't have Marina's more seasoned horse Chico to "block" her.  And she piaffed a little and was obviously not happy about it, but she stayed behind without too much of a struggle and after a minute or two chilled out enough for me to relax and enjoy the ride.  Until we came to a clearing where some goatherd had set up a bunch of big white portable plastic water tanks on either side of the trail.  Which neither Starbuck nor Chico wanted to have anything to do with.  And the braver horse, Rodrigo, was so far ahead of us we couldn't even see him.  But after a minute or so of balking and forwards and backwards and sideways stuff, we finally got the two of them to walk side-by-side through the clearing.  In my book, a big success and a reminder of the fact that my ultimate goal with Starbuck is not a horse who looks pretty when I ride her, but a horse that enjoys her job and that trusts me enough to be able to do just about anything with.

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