I Hope This Lasts


I had another forward, frisky and fun ride on Freddie last night, which I improved midway through with the addition of a Thinline pad to lift the saddle further off his shoulders. He was raring to go, and again, I had to concentrate in order to get my half-halts working, but overall I am thrilled with my new-found Fred. We did a bit of canter while wearing the Thinline that felt amazing, and for the first time, I felt a horse lift and use his back in the canter, getting the “bouncy ball” feeling I have heard others describe. It was pretty wonderful!

I hope this lasts!

I’m not done tweaking the saddle, however. Some fine-tuning is in order. Tonight I am going to put the 8mm front and middle risers in the saddle, and the 4″mm rear shims (hopefully to keep it balanced.) Freddie still feels sticky bending (though much improved) and I have a hunch that he could use even more rooom in the shoulder. The risers will help lift the fixed parts of the saddle away from this shoulder. I’m also going to adjust my billets backwards a little, and dig out my anatomical girth. I think it will be too short, but I have some extenders somewhere.

It’s a pain in the neck going through all the endless combinations, but the fine tuning is worth it – when you get the right fit, the difference in the horse is amazing. The caveat is that you have to be ready to do it all again soon if you have an unfit horse and the luxury of adjustable tack. As Fred’s back changes with work, I will very likely need to make future fixes to keep him comfy. But that is the whole point, in my mind, of having an inventory of pads, gullets and shims.

The trick is in paying attention so I don’t miss the signals when he tells me it’s time for another change.

The difference in Freddie’s way of going is night and day, and I can see it in his demeanor as well as his movement. For example, I’ve already learned that when he’s happier, his big ears flop and twirl. I’m in danger of developing the bad habit of staring fixedly at my horse’s ears, but they are so entertaining – one will be spinning, while the other sticks out at a right angle for a while, and they they both go into motion at once. As goofy as they are, Fred’s ears are an important signal. When they stop twirling, I know something’s up.

Another signal is his mouth. Last night, Freddie was dripping white foam, which I took as powerful affirmation. He developed foam in short order Sunday too, despite the fleeting duration of our ride.

During earlier, more uncomfortable rides, the foam has been scant. So Fred is clearly able to communicate with his mouth, too.

It feels like I’m getting pretty close on the saddle fitting challenge, and am putting some of the getting-to-know-you pieces together, and laying the foundation for a good relationship with Freddie. I hope he’s as pleased with me as I am with him!

Revving Up vs Ratcheting Back

c and fred

Going for a spin with Christy. She is swimming in my saddle, which we determined to be out of balance during this session. Fred looks pretty though!

There’s no question that dressage requires a forward-thinking horse.  You can’t achieve diddly unless the horse is up in the bridle, working over his back and those hind legs are connected.

But how you arrive at that magical point of connectedness can vary. You can either harness and guide the energy of a self-propelled, forward horse, or you can try to generate it from a less motivated creature.

The majority of riders will pick option one, the self-propelled horse. In purchasing Fred, I picked option 2.  The horse I will enjoy riding most is the one I am not worried will flee to the next county at the slightest provocation.

clownAll that said, Fred’s sellers disclosed that one of his go-to evasions was stopping or, as I would call it, balking.  And I ran into this last week when Fred decided that simply walking forward was too much to ask.

The online message boards are full of “What do I do when my horse won’t go forward” threads, and balking is a common evasion.  It’s also one that you don’t mess with, because it can be a precursor to rearing, and that is flat out dangerous.  Maddie balked with me at one point, and Christy made it clear in that moment that I had to deal with the behavior clearly and unequivocally. The next instant I felt her suck back and get light on her front end, I reached back and gave her an almighty crack with the whip, and … the mare said “Okay, fine.” and went forward.

Maddie was kind of terrifying to me, Fred isn’t.  However, I do know that my saddle isn’t 100% comfortable for him, so I want to be fair to him as well.  That said, his back isn’t sore, and he can walk forward. And I need him to move to gauge the adjustments I make.  Without an honest response from him, I can’t determine whether or not the fixes I make help.  I need Fred to meet me half way.

Back to the balking.  I’m not going to beat a horse that I know to be uncomfortable through long rides, but a “yes ma’am” response is non negotiable.  I made a mental note to build in time for some ground work, and then set to immediate work on Mr. Balky, setting his inside hind leg into motion, by putting my heel (equipped with a baby spur) into his side – asking him to step step step step step – with his inside hind into the outside rein, effectively doing a tiny little circle.  I also added to the negative pressure by tapping him firmly with the whip. Not beating, but keeping the pressure up while we did our little circle.

I was giving him a choice.  He could either walk forward nicely and willingly on a long rein, or we could do what is the equine version of isometrics, working much harder on that tiny circle, with the incessant tapping whip.

He gave me the wrong answer when I gave him him the first opportunity to rethink his approach, so back into the little circle we went, and I turned up the volume with the whip, giving him a couple good swats before resuming the tap-tap-tap-tap.  That did the trick – he decided that a nice marching walk, complete with a swinging back (see, I told you the saddle really isn’t that far out of whack) was not unreasonable.

However, when I asked him to trot, he balked again.  Back onto the circle, with the higher volume whip (swat! tap tap tap.) The ride was ugly – I had to do five or six of the little circles before Fred finally did walk/trot transitions up and down from minimal aids, and then we had a few more skirmishes going the other direction.  However, over the following days, the resistance faded, and I could finally get a better read on his comfort.

I decided that Fred is telling me that he’s happy to go forward but honest bend is an issue, and that the saddle might be sitting too low, interfering with his shoulders.  Christy confirmed this, too – I’m having her hop on at regular intervals to get a second opinion on saddle fit, and she encountered resistance when she asked Fred for engaged and correct bend.

A narrower gullet and front shims. Fred seems to approve of this combo.

A narrower gullet and front shims. Fred seems to approve of this combo.

We agreed that trying a narrower gullet would be a good next step, and then I decided to add some shims to my saddle (4 millimeter in the front and middle) after playing with the gullet, shims and a very patient Fred yesterday.

Another look at Fred's back. He isn't round.

Another look at Fred’s back. He isn’t round.

I’ve said it before, and I am sure I will say it again, but Bates has created something wonderful with their adjustable saddles. They come apart and back together easily, and in minutes I had the shims installed, along with the narrower gullet.  Now, it is worth noting that not every tree fits every horse. However, I was specifically looking for a horse with a wither when I was shopping – I wanted to avoid the hoop tree wearing crowd.  Partially because I like the way a wither secures a saddle on the hores’s back – you don’t need to ride with a super tight girth.  Additionally, I love my Isabell. If at all possible, I want to keep this saddle. Fred’s back shape reminds me a bit of Derby’s, and more of Christy’s horse Remy’s, though of course he’s broader than both, so I am hopeful.

After I had my saddle back together, I tacked Fred up. I didn’t use a half pad, and was satisfied with how things looked visually – the balance looked good, no pinches or gaps, all righty then, let’s try this!

It’s tough to say whether it was a function of my saddle fitting genuis luck, the cool weather or the fact that Fred was feeling fresh asfter two days off.  It was probably a combination of the variables, but he felt great – fresh and frankly forward! He caught me by surprise, and it took me a minute to get my half halts working to regulate his spanking trot.

I believe I started to feel his back come up, too, and that is what I am really seeking – that, and getting Fred comfortable bending. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time or energy after a long car trip earlier in the day to do a longer ride. We will revisit this again tonight in my lesson.

I think I am definitely on the right track with the narrower fit, but may need to add a little more to the front shims.  I know from past experience  that a few millimeters here and there can make a world of difference to the horse, and when you finally make he horse comfortable, so many “problems” you were having evaporate.

We’ll get there. Who knows, maybe ol’ Freddie has more forward gears than we knew.









Big Red Fred

imageI didn’t think it would happen this quickly, but just a couple weeks after I said goodbye to Derby, I have a new horse.

My heart really wasn’t in it, but I started to make my long and exhaustive list of things I wanted in my next equine partner the weekend I said farewell to Derbs.

Christy has her students go through this process, and it really does help. It’s not unlike buying a house. It helps to put parameters around what you’re looking for and avoid getting distracted by things you really shouldn’t buy. If you wanted a four bedroom house, for example, there’s no sense in looking at a two bedroom condo. No matter how fancy the neighborhood or how great the view, if you need four bedrooms, that two bedroom condo is not going to work long term.

My goals:

Enjoy my horse, learn and develop as a rider, have fun, and be able to go show, go to clinics and ride out on trails with confidence.

The list:

  • Gelding
  • Easygoing temperament. More whoa than Go!
  • TB cross, but not Anglo Arab. Hybrid vigor is important to me. Do not want a pureblood anything.
  • Between 15.3 and 16.1 and stocky
  • Show miles and trail experience both, and by trail experience I don’t mean going out once and running screaming back to the barn sans rider
  • Between the ages of 8-11
  • Something with a bit of a wither, because I want something that will hold a saddle securely
  • Three correct gaits, but not enormous gaits. Rideability is key.
  • No color preference but God, please, not a Paint with lots of white and blue eyes and whatnot because that is NOT how I roll. And not a ton of hair either, though I suppose that is why God made clippers.

Sure enough, despite knowing better and contrary to my list, I started to fall victim to bad judgment. A flashy young KWPN/ASB gelding who

One of the eye catching pictures from Fred's ad.

One of the eye catching pictures from Fred’s ad.

looked hot in the video found his way onto the list. A green Friesian cross followed in short order.

But then one ad stopped me in my tracks. It was for a gorgeous young warmblood. The horse was in my price range. I stopped and looked. And then I read the ad:

“Current owner is a competent and seasoned rider who realizes that this lovely, sensitive and talented horse has too much go and too much power for her. He needs a confident, kind and patient individual to bring him along.”

Talk about the universe sending a message.

I did not want to be that person. I have seen those women, overhorsed past the point of danger. A couple were severely injured. Non were having fun.

I came to my senses and immediately deleted all the fancy youngsters from my list.

Happily, Christy was faring better. She spotted an ad for a horse that sounded perfect in a dressage group on Facebook, and tagged me.

During the test ride.  I felt comfortable right away.  And this canter is really nice.

During the test ride. I felt comfortable right away. And this canter is really nice.

I looked at that ad, and looked again. The pictures looked great and the description sounded spot on. The horse was a hair over budget, and 300 miles away, in Ohio, but if he was for sale in the Chicago area, he’d be out of my range. I contacted the seller.

After a couple email exchanges and a phone call, the horse, a 9 year old 3/4 TB 1/4 Belgian named Remington, was sounding better and better. He had been started slowly by his breeder, raised with a menagerie and hacked all around a 100 acre property. He’d been out to some hunter schooling shows and had also schooled some XC, and had been a star. He was now schooling First/Second. He was a chill dude and tended to be lazy. He was chestnut with a star and a little sock. Pretty much every box on my list was checked.

Another snippet from the test ride.  Fancy.

Another snippet from the test ride. Fancy.

Christy and I made the trip to see Remington the following weekend. I was the first to ride, defying convention a bit, but I wanted to see what he was like, and he was fine. I really enjoyed the ride, and felt like we clicked pretty quickly, which I can’t say for evey horse I get on. I even earned some compliments from the peanut gler watching us. Christy hopped on, pushed some puttons, and agreed that he’d be a good fit for me. I got back on, and finished up with a short hack out around the property – across a meadow, into the woods – on a loose rein and easy peasy.

Four of Remington’s full siblings were also at the barn, and I got to see two working, and they were very nice. The various owners are really happy with them. I made the decision to have him vetted.

From our lesson last night.

From our lesson last night.

He passed with flying colors, and arrived last Friday night. He was a good boy upon arrival – a little wound up but well behaved and polite. He subutted to the indignities of having his temperature taken, and then being dosed with gastrogard and electrolyte paste with good grace.

Our first ride on Saturday was uneventful. Freddie, as I am calling him, a nod to the artist Frederic Remington, got a walk around the property and then a tour of the indoor before I mounted up for our first ride. In the indoor, alone, he was calling for the others, who were in a bit of a uproar due to the arrival of a new mare who had all the girls in a tizzy. I turned him loose for a minute, and marveled at the the dampening effect of the Belgian blood on the TB fire. There were no death-defying vertical bucks or eye-popping bursts of speed. It made me appreciate the athleticism of the TB, and also it affirmed my decision to buy Freddie. Everything I saw looked very, very rideable.

Big Red Fred.

Big Red Fred.

As of this writing, we have three rides under our belt. He’s been great and is fun to ride. His gaits are lovely. Things I need to work on:

– Responsiveness, especially the forward response.

– Riding him out and into contact – he is a horse that will curl on you.

– Fitness overall, and suppless on this right side in particular.

But over all, I am so pleased with this horse. He is also very personable and social. He marched right over to me on Saturday when I went up to the gate of his pasture and called his new name, and he hangs his head out of his stall, watching as I putter around, cleaning our tack and tidying up. He’s never been anybody’s number one, and I think he’s going to love being the center of attention.

The Little Unicorn

justin 1

As Derby’s ordeal progressed in June, I began looking around for a horse to ride. I needed to keep the rust from forming on the dressage muscles. Good fortune smiled upon me, as a woman Christy had been in contact with was looking for a share boarder for her horse, a handsome Andalusian. Pregnant with her second child, she was still able to ride, but dismounting was becoming a real challenge!

Christy and I went out to meet Elizabeth and her lovely steed Justin and see if we all clicked.  The polar opposite of my long-backed, long-necked, downhill Derby, Justin is compact and naturally inclined to use his back end. He is also very forward, but rideable and thoroughly pleasant.  At first, I floundered a bit on him, but Christy stepped in and with some coaching, Justin and I started to click.

I wrote Elizabeth a check and have been shareboarding him for the last few weeks. He’s about 15 minutes away from where I imagekept Derby, so I’m doing my lessons on him, and getting an extra ride or two in as well.

Riding Justin is like saddling a Ferrari.  In addition to being forward and enthusiastic, Justin is also extremely maneuverable. When I tighten a leg and think “Let’s do a shallow serpentine,” what I get is a 5 meter half circle. He’s got more education than the other horses I’ve ridden, and is proving to be a great teacher for me, providing a crash course in some totally new subject matter, especially important in the context of the search for my next horse.

With his white coat, flowing mane and dark, limpid eye, Justin is a perfect little unicorn – he’s just missing his horn.  He’s proving to be a great distraction from my current travails, and a good little buddy in the making.

My Sweet Boy

imageIt’s been an long time since I’ve posted, due mostly to a chaotic few months on the job front for me.  However, I’ve been settled in great new job for a while, and I’ve owed you an update on the progress Derby and I made.

However, this is not the update I thought I’d write.

After our last ride.  He was such a good boy.

After our last ride. He was such a good boy.

On June 17, we had a really nice ride, one that got me thinking about getting back into the show ring.  On June 18, Derby’s legs stopped working.

I received a call from my friend Liz, who was at the barn and could see that something was seriously wrong.  She left me a voicemail, and in the next minute called my vet.  She called me back, and this time I was able to pick up.  After listening to her brief explanation, I dropped everything and ran.

Arriving at the barn, I found Derby on his feet, but very very unsteady.  His balance was tenuous and he didn’t have control over his legs.  Still, he was calm and determined to graze, so we waited for the vet there.

Upon arrival, Dr. Nicky clearly did not like what she saw, and with help from her assistant, they got Derby safely into his stall. She took blood to test for EPM, East/West Nile and Rhino, and then started to treat the symptoms with IV banamine, a load of dex and a huge infusion of DMSO.  Once he was hooked up to the drip, Dr. Nicky and I were able to step away and talk.  That this was a dire situation was clear, and our immediate goal was to keep Derby from going down.  He was so unsteady on his feet, it was sickening to watch – with every move, I feared that he was going to fall and break a shoulder or hip.image

I also agreed to start treating immediately for EPM, because if he did have an active EPM infection, time was of the essence. So a loading dose of Marquis went down the hatch as well.

I was up before the crack of dawn the next day, and hot-footed it to the barn with my heart in my throat. When I looked into Derby’s stall and found him quietly snoozing, I was weak with relief. I texted Dr. Nicky with the news.  We had made it past an important hurdle.

That afternoon, Derby looked better. He got more DMSO and more banamine, and appeared much improved the following day.  We continued to treat for EPM while awaiting the results of the blood tests.   Derby’s condition was variable – some days he looked pretty good, and some days he didn’t.  My goal for him was a safe retirement.  He was a great patient, hanging out quietly in his stall, dozing during the day and not working himself up when the other horses were out.  I would pick grass for him and hang out in the evening, grooming him, picking his stall, feeding cookies and just puttering around.  Derby’s demeanor was bright and content.

Admiring his get well card

Admiring his get well card

After about a week of Marquis treatment, I noticed some changes in Derby’s neurological symptoms.  He was having considerable trouble moving his front legs, and was starting to drag his front right around from the shoulder.  I called Dr. Nicky and she put him on her schedule for that day, and then a new wrinkle emerged.  She received the results of the EPM test that morning, and Derby had zero exposure to the evil little protozoa that cause that debilitating disease.



I wasn’t there for that exam, but Dr. Nicky went over Derby with a fine toothed comb, and found a very tender spot in his neck. In fact, during the exam, Derby actually bit Lainey, who was assisting Nicky. The two were stunned – they have known Derby longer than I have, he’s a favorite around the practice, and he’s not a biter.  Dr. Nicky hauled out her equipment and x-rayed his neck, and there it was – the culprit.

There was clearly an injury to the C4 vertebra. The bone quality was spongy and it appeared cracked, and the x-ray suggested that there was either significant calcification or a mass there too.  The whole mess was impinging upon Derby’s spinal column, causing the problems. I recalled that his racing owner had mentioned that he “hurt his neck” as a two year old, and mentioned that to Nicky.  She suggested we go after the inflammation, in the event it was a flare up we could knock down, while I sought more info from the former owner.

Such a stellar patient.

Such a stellar patient.

An email garnered a fast and detailed reply.  Derby had injured himself when turning to bite at his rider’s boot, he got his tack hung up and went over.  They rested him for few days and he seemed OK, but he showed neurological symptoms later in his 2 year old year when he went to the track and the trainer put a tie-down on him.  They feared he was a wobbler at the time, but with rest, chiro and not using the tie-down, the symptoms abated.

At this point, I could start to see the writing on the wall. Derby had lived with that injury for 13 years, but obviously re-aggravated it somehow out in turnout.  At this point, damage to the spinal column seemed likely. And even if it wasn’t, I now knew that he had this failure point in his neck. Even if we could get him to the point where he regained enough control over his feet to be safely turned out,  a future neurological event seemed to be a near certainty.  When we took another set of x-rays about a week later, we could see signs of healing, but we could also see that the damaged bone was healing into the spinal cord.

The night before.

The night before.

We can’t micromanage or bubble wrap our horses.  But in this case, I did feel like I could at the very least prevent a catastrophic end for Derby.  After a discussion with my vet, I made the decision to let him go.  He was euthanized last Friday, with the sun on his back, after being allowed to graze for a few minutes.  It’s what my grandmother would have called a good death, and that was the best I could do for him.

I miss Derby terribly and am still very sad.  He was a difficult horse to ride – getting him connected over his back was a bear, but he was a wonderful teacher, and I learned so much from him.  I’ll be forever grateful for the privilege of being his person.

More tools and tactics

late jan trot

Activating the inside hind

For the last week, I’ve been assiduously working on allowing my leg to drape around the horse, relaxing at the hip and stretching down through the ball of my foot.  This has really helped correct my tendency to curl my feet in, resting my weight primarily on my pinky toes.  It’s also a lot more comfortable!

We worked hard over the weekend and Derby was pretty sluggish and slow to get going last night, despite the fact that it was pretty chilly in the arena last night (and often, nippy air = sassy pony.)

As we worked through our warm up, Christy had me do a new exercise, asking me to throw in a stride of leg yield – first right, then left, then right – down the long sides.   By asking me to leg yield, she was also specifically telling me to ride from my seat and leg, and leave the horse’s face out of the equation.

This was a revelation, because  I started to think more about where and how the resistance was happening – whether it was on one side, or whether Derby was pulling from the center, from the underside of his neck.  Christy had me apply the leg that was opposite the resistance and within short order I had a much more compliant and soft horse.  (Related reading: Christy’s discussion of leg yields.)

As Derby started to move more up and out, Christy also noticed that I was impeding his ability to do so by carrying my hands low, and in so doing, I was inadvertently dumping him on his forehand.  She had me pay attention to moving my hands up, to accommodate Derby’s elevated posture.  Here’s a good snippet of her coaching us:

Joy, and Pain

ctbs 1 19 trot

We had our first lesson at the new barn with Christy last night. I’ve ridden Derby exactly once in the last two weeks, and prior to that, we had time off over the holidays, so I really wasn’t sure what we’d be able to do for her.  However,  all the rides we have had in the month since moving have been really nice, so I was optimistic.

Christy was really happy what she saw. She picked at a few things but for the most part we had a solid ride. She did find and fix issue that I had overlooked pretty quickly, however, and it made big difference.  I was allowing my legs to rotate outward from the hip, and not draping them around the horse.  I discovered that I had my feet cocked at an angle in the stirrup, too, placing more weight on the outside edges of my foot.  Focusing on stretching down through my leg, through and out the ball of my foot, solved the problem pretty quickly – my legs were draping and more effective right off the bat. I need to school this because I’ve let it slide over the last month, but it’s something I can work on independely.

Speaking of independent work, I diagnosed and fixed a saddle balance problem all by myself recently.  I’ve been well schooled in saddle balance by Christy, and I noticed a couple weeks ago that things were feeling a bit out of whack, as I was starting to try to climb over the top of the pommel when I posted.  I was on the lookout for changes in saddle fit, as Derby is getting better turnout (larger group, and larger paddock) and much better food.  I applied some of the tests for saddle balance I’ve learned from Christy, including her “stand-stand-sit” test which is a stone-cold truth-teller about how well your saddle was balanced, and yep, it was a struggle — when your saddle is balanced, you can do laps of stand-stand-sit easily, without batting an eye.

I took my saddle home, got a screwdriver and my shim kit (if you’re a new reader, I ride in a newer Bates Isabell with the Riser System) and swapped the 8mm forward shim for the 4mm version.

It’s only a 4 millimeter difference on either side but changing the shim produced a magic effect  – I’m in really good balance now and the horse also approves – he tells me by moving easily and giving me his back.

I’ve seen a big change in Derby since moving to the new barn.  He hasn’t put a foot wrong – no spooks – and seems relaxed and happy.  Our rides are our best ever.  I know the footing at the old barn was bad – it was hard, it would freeze, and the barn owner didn’t groom the ring regularly.  In retrospect, I think it make moving downright painful for the horses.  However, what I didn’t realize is the footing affected more than how the horse moved – it affected my ability to ride in a balanced, connected manner that was safer, too. Anyway, I’ll be apologizing to Derby for not moving him sooner. I’ve only recently realized how I dreaded going to the old place, if only because going to the new barn is a joy.


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