Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Gives me chills -- and not in a good way

Stories like this send ice down my spine. EVENTING NATION: A tribute to horses from Boyd Martin's program lost in the barn fire As the author says, you always have the scary stuff hovering on the outskirts of your brain (you should see me before a trail ride), but to hear of a tragedy of this magnitude, the loss of six such incredible horses, gah. It triggers lizard-brain terror levels in me.

I know all things must come to an end, but in my mind that is an eventuality--easily 15 or 20 years away from now. What would it be like to wake up and know you'd never have that soft nose in your face (or your pocket) again? Never hear that nicker as you walked up the path to their paddock? What if there was absolutely nothing you could do? Would that make it better? Or would it make it worse? And what if was due to something you did? How could you ever live with yourself?

But before I spiral into complete neurosis, I think I will refocus on sending thoughts and sympathies to those owners and trainers in this accident. My condolences goes out to each and every person who had the joy of working with and knowing these magnificent horses, companions, athletes.

Hush lizard-brain. The ponies are safe and sound, if most likely a little muddy. Maybe this is just a reminder not to take them for granted, to take the time to savor what they bring to my life, rather than envisioning terrifying scenarios.

Bar says it would be good to remember this bit and get out of work in time tomorrow to see him. With carrots. Plenty of carrots.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Lesson with Lena

My lessons continued, with help this week from both Peter and Lena Rey Flo.

When I got to the barn, Peter asked if I was going to "ride the Paint," so I said yes. Lena hadn't been out a lot this week because Steve has been sick. She wanted out. After I cleaned her pen, she started to follow me out under her hot wire. Calabar tried it, too, so it appears they were both ready to rock and roll.

Calabar watched me lead Lena to the barn to tack her up with a curious and vaguely concerned look on his face. Yes, I know I'm anthropomorphizing, but you didn't see the intensity of the gaze as his two ladies walked off together.

As part of Peter's present quest to teach me to ride quietly and use subtle cues, we all stayed inside the round pen working on seat, arm position, and getting Lena to bend softly.

It could have been boring and Lena could have gotten annoyed with me, but it wasn't and she didn't. In fact, she seemed to relax and go with it once she figured out she didn't have to do much but trot quietly.

My flaws are what are probably typical for newer riders. While I am riding more in my seat and less in my feet than I used to, I tend to get rigid in my lower back, then round my shoulders forward, all while straightening out my elbows. Or, in my attempts to sit up, I arch my back and push my stomach forward--again, straightening out my elbows. This shot from Slide last year shows my typical pose.

It actually hurts to sit up and arch my back, so I'm not sure how that became my other weird default, defensive riding position but it is. I'm working on it, but trying to get it to all come together at the same time is sometimes a little daunting.

My hands are about the only thing that usually manage to stay soft, but when I straighten my arms, I can no longer move with the horse and my hands bounce, and therefore so does my contact with their mouth.

Sometimes, it seems like I will never get all this straight all at once--or at least not for long.

But I'm going to keep trying, because I can already tell the difference in my seat and also in my confidence. And maybe a little bit because concentrating on my riding, my body, my position, seems to keep me distracted from worrying about what the horse might do. Crazy, but true. I will say that my main focus is really to be relaxed and soft. The rest of it will probably fall into place once I get that part figured out.

I can hope so, anyway.

After I put Lena away, I retrieved the neglected Thoroughbred and--tired and sore as I was--worked him on the ground before climbing up on him bareback (with his bridle) to practice some of what I'd just learned with Lena. He gave me a nice arc, not too much pushed out ribcage, and was somewhat mollified by the attention and carrots he received.

Both horses also got a thorough brushing--including Show Sheen in manes and tails--and Lena even got a little massage and acupressure, which lead to big horsey yawns as she released whatever toxins were lurking in her beautiful spotty self.

It did make for a bit of a long afternoon at the barn, but it was worth it. The hot tub, however, is calling.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Riding lessons

Peter gave me my litmus test lesson today on his "kids" horse, Blondie. He said, "If you can't ride Blondie, you might was well give up now." I must have done okay because he indicated we could probably progress to a slightly more challenging horse next time, maybe even Lena. Calabar is also in the not-too-distant future, once I get my own squiggly body under control.

Not that I'll stay off Calabar's back between now and then, mind you, but Blondie helped me focus on more correct position and movement, and more subtle directions. Jessica and subtle do not often co-exist, but it appears we will have to find some kind of arrangement if I am to stay in the saddle.

Part of my own special challenge is retraining my body and my balance so I don't lead with my upper body. Back (way back) when I had delusions of tall-ness, I was a rower, and my upper body did a lot of moving. Hauling a very long, skinny oar through the water is not easy and while my legs contributed, the last push (technically a pull) was back and arms. This is not, however, a good method when it comes to riding (or skiing I've been told). Tossing one's upper body around to direct a horse really only serves to force them to balance for you. This tends to get in the way of what you're asking them to do, leading to all kinds of nonsense and miscues. Living life above your own center of gravity is also bad for any number of reasons--sailing off your horse's backside is one in particular that comes to mind.

Peter gave me good input: ride between my elbows; sit straight; ask gently first; keep your hands soft; don't move below the armpits, and really try not to move anything except my pelvis. Blondie, however, gave the best input. "I'm going to [veer off, stop, turn wide] now because whether or not you meant to do so, you just asked me to [veer off, stop, turn wide].

Alas, there are no pictures of my lesson today because Steve was off riding his lovely spotty horse instead of documenting this next part of my journey. Since Lena needed the work, I suppose that's allowed.

So I leave you with a picture of this Thoroughbred I know and love, with dreams of riding him with my seat and not trying to (using Peter's analogy) drive a bus.

Bar says that sounds like a good plan.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Keep on learning

This post on Buckskin and Bay not only reminded me of my lesson last week, but of the things I swore I'd work on after the Mark Rashid clinic we audited last year. Things like moving with the horse, balance, staying out of their way so they don't have to fight with us to do what we're asking.

Oops. I forgot.

Luckily, I remembered a little bit today. Damn. It sure felt good to be relaxed and happy in the saddle on my horse again. And Calabar responded to it. I won't say things were perfect, but I seemed to do a better job of directing while staying out of his way. My focus was really to be soft in my seat an hands, to feel the rhythm of his body and match it with my own so I could direct instead of react.

Still a little sore, I admit, but rocking with my horse's movement made it worth it. Having him respond and not fight me, actually seem like he was trying to figure out what I wanted and do it?? Not to quote a credit card commercial, but it was priceless. Absolutely priceless.

So he got to munch grass. And he got all the happiness I had to give him. (And isn't he looking good??!!)

Calabar and I have had an up and down road so far, but he continues to teach me. He also continues to learn. As long as we both keep giving, I don't think there is anything we can't do.

Love this horse.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Bar's lesson

Bar had his first lesson with Peter today and with only minor arguments and correction, he settled into good work.

When I first got him out, I wasn't sure how this would go. The wind was a-blowin' and the rain was intermittently slamming onto the metal roof, plus Bar may have picked up a little bit of my anxiety about the upcoming lesson. He was a little high, so I let him run in the round pen for a bit while I was waiting for Peter. He did settle down, though, after burning off some of his bouncy energy.

I watched Peter on him, and they had a pretty good ride. Peter got after him a little, corrected position and frame--Bar likes to push his ribcage out, apparently--and drift wide on his turns. Peter also commented that Bar's right shoulder is stiff, which I knew--probably a legacy of his racing days, plus a side effect of protecting that bowed tendon.

Then Peter had me get on inside the round pen, first at a walk, then we even managed a sitting trot--kind of a first for us! Well, for more than a couple strides, anyway. We worked on my turns, my position, and figuring out when that ribcage pops out. Bar's, not mine. I have my own issues to work on, naturally, but I felt good about getting back on, though my seat did object after not too long. I think I'm going to take some lessons on one of Peter's more trained horses to help sort out my own body so I am in a better place to help Bar get and stay in frame. Oh, and so I stay on when he does spook or try anything.

Peter, being Peter, said most of it is probably me because Bar didn't try too much of anything with Peter. He reminded me that our brains tell us the entirely wrong things when we're riding and to ignore the instinct to curl up in a fetal ball when we get scared. It's hard not to get tense when I get scared, but I know he's right. Must. Tell. Brain. To. Shut. Up.

The little bit of coolness--besides watching Bar figure things out and try to watch me and listen to Peter at the same time--was feeling my seat. Feeling my legs loose and relaxed, balancing on my butt and not really having to think about it while I worked on the other stuff.

And it even lasted after I could feel my seat in a not-so-comfortable way.

I know we have a ways to go, and it will be a lot of work, but for a quiet moment today, I moved with my horse.

And it was good.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


Katie went up to Slide Mountain last weekend to visit and to start to plan out her upcoming move up there. She confessed my latest incident with Bar for me to Cheri, who sighed and said she knew something was up because I hadn't emailed in awhile. Silence, apparently, is a flag where I'm concerned.

Cheri has worried about me since I got Bar, and not without cause. She grew up near the racetrack, saw the side of racing that gives it a bad name, and saw horses that were not easy to retrain--even for very experienced riders. It is apparently a surprise--even to racehorse owners--that these horses can be retrained and become something other than legs and heart churning down the track. I know from several sources (besides my own biased perspective) that they can be successfully retrained and in fact enjoy life beyond the track.

But it is not necessarily an easy task.

It goes without saying that my learning curve has been steeper than I anticipated where Bar is concerned, and very often it's been parabola-shaped. What goes up must come down, as it were.

He probably does deserve a better, more seasoned rider than I am who could do more with him, give him a better "job," but he is stuck with me as I fumble through all this. For the most part, though, he seems to like it. I'm fairly certain he'll like it more when I ride better, and he's already calmer since I've gone back to establishing clear, consistent rules and boundaries.

I know it will be a longer journey with Bar than it would be with a "safer" horse, but what he teaches me along the way will be well worth it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Re-learning my horse

Calabar has been my big, fuzzy, brown challenge for awhile now--and you all know I adore him, sometimes in spite of himself.

The last few weeks, I've been spending time re-learning my horse--how to work with him, how to motivate him, how to teach him, and how to teach myself to guide him.

Mostly, he has been cooperative to a fault--trying to anticipate what I want and do it.

Tonight, he decided to test the boundaries a little. He ran into more than he had hit in awhile, and it was good. For both of us.

We got to what he considered the end of his work-day and I asked a little more, knowing I'd always stopped there before, knowing he thought that would be enough and it would be over.

He tossed a little tantrum or two, a couple different times, and was surprised when I just kept asking him to do the same thing that started the tantrum. Yes, please circle around me and trot over the poles. I know you don't like to go the other way, but you'll live. Oh look! You survived! Yes, you can be proud of yourself, now.

Every time he fussed and balked, I just pointed him back the same direction and asked him to make a decision--preferably the right decision.

He pouted a little, but he got over it. He learned I expect him to comply, and that I'm not going to ask him to do anything out of bounds. I learned I can push him past his comfort zone and we can move forward.

It seems we made a tiny bit of progress.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

A day with racehorses--past, current, and future

Lacey likes her butt scratched. A lot.

Steve and I got to visit with Howie and Devon today--and Sitty, Lacey, Ginger, and Ursulita, too. It made for a day full of past, current, and future runners--including more stories about Calabar.

Sitty has been off the track for a few weeks, resting and healing, and was very cooperative posing for photos. Possibly a little too cooperative. "Can you stop following me for a second?"

"Is that a camera?"

She looks good--relaxed and comfortable. She will probably head back to the track in the next few weeks to start training again, but for now she likes to gaze at the green fields out past her fence to see what she might be missing.

The Big Girl enjoying her time off

She also likes her ears and head rubbed, the big softie. And I do mean big. I look short next to Calabar, but Sitty makes me look like a midget! Probably good I didn't come off her--that extra few inches could have added a hair too much velocity to my fall.

Jess the shrimp

Little Lacey is quite a character--bouncy, opinionated, and athletic. Not to mention a cute little filly with a broad white blaze and long legs. She shows definite signs of turning into quite a racehorse in a few years.

Mama and baby

In talking about the two fillies--Ginger, now a yearling, and Lacey, just two months old--I mused about what Calabar's early training was like. Howie didn't mince words, though he doesn't do that much in any case. "They beat him up," he said. Bar came to Howie as a two-year old, hot nails in all four feet, and a laissez-fair attitude as far as his health was concerned. As long as he was making money, nothing else mattered to his owner/breeder.

Thankfully, it's not the way all owners and trainers are, not by a long shot. I've met some fine trainers who won't compromise their horses just to win. Of course, that sometimes means they don't win, but it also means their horses are happy and healthy. Seems like better karma to me, but I'm biased.

As Howie talked, I got that little <snick> in my head when something starts to make sense. Calabar's early life taught him that no one cared about his health and well-being but him, and he was expected to run even when he hurt. That does not excuse his recent behavior, but it does give me insight. He is likely to try and take control when he feels insecure or when he's asked to do something past his comfort level. Or when he just doesn't like what he's being asked to do. <Click>.

I promised him tonight that I would always try to listen to him, never push him too hard when I know he's hurting, and help him heal when he is injured. The balance is he needs to work with me, even when he doesn't feel like it. Feeding time included.

Seems like steps in the right direction, anyway.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

HR resourcing company does their part to hobble the horse industry

**Rant alert**

The horse industry has taken a hard hit over the last several years from many sides, and it hasn't been helped by the risk-mitigation factor imposed by insurance companies. Don't get me wrong, I am living proof that horses are a dangerous hobby, but it is a hobby of my choice. Our over-litigious society and out-of-control healthcare costs (quite possibly exacerbated by said over-litigiousness) have added regulations and guidelines that are making it harder and harder for normal people (e.g. not just the wealthiest) to own and enjoy horses. (This is a common theme for me, as some of you know. See my posts Coming to the End of the Trail and Accepting Risk.)

This hadn't really hit me personally until recently, and the more I think about it, the angrier I get about the whole thing.

Actually, it hit me professionally as well as personally. My company is investigating new options for our benefits provider--not only to improve our costs (if possible) but improve the package we can offer to our employees. We are small now, but intending to grow, so attracting talent is a key factor.

Our office manager contacted a couple of reputable firms to give us some idea of what is out there. One of them was a well-known company with a good reputation for working with start-up and growing companies, plus a great package to offer current and future employees. Unless those employees are like me, that is.

I crutched into the conference room and didn't think twice when the rep asked me what happened. I guess I could have lied and said I tripped on a curb--and maybe I will next time--but I was honest and laughed about my last year of injuries.

I get it. I am a risk to insure. But seriously? I'll bet against all their statistical analysis that I'm way healthier than most average office workers out there. And isn't that's why you insure a pool of people to mitigate your costs and risk? Not to mention that if you factor my burden on the healthcare system out over the last 44 years, I'm not really all that expensive. Downright cheap if you compare me to some.

However, despite my obvious overall good health, our office manager got a call from the rep a few days after the meeting letting us know we were "not a fit" for them, citing high insurance claims generally and me specifically as the primary reason. I'm not sure how they would know what our insurance claims would be since that's private patient information, so the only logical explanation is they weren't willing to take us on because of me and my risky hobby.

Oh and did I mention we've never had any Worker's Compensation claims, either? Nope, apparently it's just me and my personal off-work-time hobby to blame.

I'm actually not really taking it personally. It's a business decision for that company. It's not as profitable for them (or safe) to insure someone with my extra-curricular activity. I get it. I don't like it, but I get it.

And I don't like it because it goes back to the inherent problems in the system. Healthcare is expensive. That stems from multiple causes, but litigation (in my opinion) is a part of that equation. And litigation--or protection from it--has been a factor in driving up costs for the horse industry as well.

I did apologize to my boss for being too honest. He said it was fine and we didn't really like them anyway. He's a diver, though, so I'm not sure he has any room to talk when it comes to risky behavior.

But really? Should we all just wrap ourselves in bubble-wrap and lead safe, boring little lives? Frankly, I don't think that's what we were put here to do.

But I ride a crazy ex-racehorse, so what do I know?

Entertaining myself

Still a couple weeks away from riding, I'm finding ways to stay amused and work on what I can until I can climb back in the saddle.

The healing is progressing and I am able to stretch and do a little more yoga each day, along with some loosening exercises from the Centered Riding book. Most of those exercises really work better on a horse, so I came up with an idea that will help my balance without causing apoplexy in my family. Meet Sam, the pseudo horse. He is helping me with my balance and core strength while my butt heals enough to get back aboard for real.

I did try a "live" test recently, though more as a "We're going to do what I want even if you think we're done," lesson for Bar. I climbed on bareback--once from each side--and we just stood quietly. However, my posterior region informed me it is not quite ready for prime time, yet. Get off. Gently. Now.

Remy, Katie's new puppy, has provided lots of entertainment in his own right. He is quite amusing, actually. I'm still not convinced Katie needed to add a dog to her life, but since she did, this one was a good choice. He's confident and smart--trainable, too. His only fault is he will get a little play-aggressive sometimes and needs swift intervention. He's going to be a dog that might intimidate people, so it's best to get that under control now and she's doing a good job with that. He still wakes her up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, but eventually that will settle down, too. On the plus side, it's both preparing her for and deterring her from actually having children--a bit of an added bonus as far as I'm concerned.

Katie and her friend Russell have been taking Lena and Forrest out on trail rides, and Russell has been riding Lena fairly regularly, too. That's good for all of us, but Lena in particular. The only one who may think it is not good is Bar. His two tantrums coincided with Lena and Forrest being out together--the first time on a trail ride, the second time in the outdoor arena. It doesn't excuse his behavior, of course, but besides the little attitudinal things I let slide, he'd been fairly decent under saddle up to that point. Not perfect, no, but the more extreme behavior of the last month and a half coincides with Forrest and Lena activity, so I have to at least say, "Hm."

Forrest is oblivious to Bar's angst, as he should be, and is getting to be a good little trail horse, even if the ocean is a bit daunting. He prefers to stay close to Lena, naturally, and she does her usual good job of being trail boss.

Bar is getting as much of my time and energy as I can spare, plus more clear and consistent handling and direction than he'd been getting. He appears to be getting the message and when he "forgets," I don't let it go. He still gets lots of affection, of course, but I'm trying to balance it with challenging tasks and exercises that get him to think a little more. Thinking is a good thing for him to do.

I, on the other hand, am doing way too much thinking right now and am looking forward to a little doing in the next few weeks. Tick tock. Tick tock.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Making progress

The retraining process is actually moving along nicely--at least as far as I'm concerned. Bar is okay with it so far, but he has more in store than he may have realized.

I finally got a chance to talk with Peter (our barn owner and trainer) about his advice regarding the big, brown opinionated Thoroughbred.

The good news is he doesn't think Bar is that bad--certainly worth working with--and is willing to help me with him. We talked about the latest events, and Peter suggested I take a lesson with him on a milder horse so he can see how I ride. He hasn't seen me in awhile because by the time I get there, he's usually fed everyone and is inside the house having his own dinner. I know my seat needs work, but could probably use some help and specific pointers from an outside force.

The bad news, at least as far as Bar is concerned, is Peter is willing to work with us.

I know this is giving him far too much credit, but Bar popped his head up as Peter and I were talking and I swear he looked a little apprehensive. "Uh oh. This can't be good."

After Peter and I talked, I took Bar down to the round pen for some ground work. He did great. Respectful, obedient, asking what was next--it was awesome.

But the best part came after we were done.

We walked out of the round pen and as I was closing the gate, he reached over to a pile of tack sitting there and picked up the bit and bridle sitting there, bit in his mouth, and looked at me. Expectantly.

I told him he had to wait, and why, and patted his fuzzy nose.

Soon, I promise. Soon.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

The life of Lena Rey and Calabar

Sarah over at Mile and Miles asked an interesting question about Calabar's living situation after my Time to Think post--whether he's in a stall, pasture, if he gets turnout, etc.

Our two live full time in paddocks with shelters, so no stalls but also no turn-out to pasture. Their paddocks are good-sized, 30 foot by 60 foot or so, they are right next to each other, and manage to have enough room to buck and roll and not enough room to do any major damage. I would love (love) for there to be turn-out to pasture, but it's not an option at our current facility. The big pasture has several horses out there already, and the two smaller front pastures have two horses each.

When we first got Lena and were at a different facility, she was in a stall at night and turned out during the day. Or rather that was the way it was supposed to work. During a construction phase, she wasn't being turned out enough, which meant too much stall time, swollen legs, and a grumpy attitude. We moved to Peter's soon after Lena kicked a hole in her stall and the barn manager called her a name I won't repeat in polite company. She's been a much happier horse ever since, even without turn-out.

Bar, of course, spent much of his early life in a stall at the racetrack or a big paddock on the ranch where he retired. He has been in a stall only a few times since--once shortly after we got him and he got out, cutting up his back leg in the process, and off and on since then for various veterinary procedures. Needless to say, he is not fond of enclosed spaces. Probably I should work on that, but since I don't really blame him, I'll worry about that issue after we get through our other challenges.

We also had a couple of worries about pasture. One, we'd have to be careful putting Lena in pasture because she is very food-focused and has the propensity to turn into a very round spotty horse. Two, Bar might get silly and hurt himself. However, after our trip to Slide last year, both of those things seem manageable in the right circumstances. The initial worry we had about Lena getting all the food evaporated when Calabar did a nice job of ensuring he got his dinner. And despite a bit more hill than he was used to and a little bit of mud, Calabar did a good job of taking care of himself in a strange place.

Unfortunately, unless we put the work (time and money, too) into extending our own paddocks, it's not an option at our current facility. Why not move, you ask? Well the other reasons we board there (convenience, reasonable cost, happy horses who mostly get enough exercise, covered arena, mellow atmosphere) outweigh the desire for more room for them. Plus, Sarah's comment makes me wonder whether Bar would get even more herd-bound with Lena if we turned them out together. Not thinking that's such a good idea.

So for now, they stay where they are and we try to make sure they get out enough. They bicker through the pipe panel, and I dream of an extension behind their paddocks. It could happen. Just maybe not this year.

Practicing on land

In addition to the ground work Bar and I have been doing--and thanks to a recommendation from my friend Joan over at Cowboy and Dexter's Excellent Adventure--I've been working on my center using Sally Swift's Centered Riding books.

While it would be ideal to be doing the exercises on Calabar's back, we're still on restricted access at this time, so I have been doing some of them on the ground as part of my morning yoga routine. What I love about her style is the visualizations that help loosen and lengthen. Even sitting on the sofa, I can feel how that will help my riding. Not that Calabar doesn't also need training but--as I said to Steve--if I am more confident and centered in my seat, he won't have near the opportunity to be as wicked as he's been lately.

So I'm practicing on land for now, which is better than not doing them at all, but I can't wait to try them aboard the big, brown horse, too. He may think I'm weird at first, but I'm pretty sure when he feels me untwist from my normal position, breathe, and relax, he'll welcome the newest evidence of my oddness.