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).