Why I Ride

This has been a tough weekend for equestrians everywhere, as another bright young light in eventing was extinguished when a rider died from injuries sustained during a prominent 3* event, and another rider’s horse was euthed, also from injuries sustained during the same competition. (Godspeed, Philippa and Ouija. #KickOn on through Heaven’s gate.)

I’m not an eventer, nowhere near it. But for the last week, I’ve been hobbling painfully around on a grossly swollen knee, having come off about ten days ago when my horse spooked just as I was mounting. I got hung up in a stirrup, and before it broke free, my left knee got a pretty good twist. A visit to the orthopod confirmed there’s no serious damage (thank you God) however, it’s still pretty swollen and sore, I’m in a brace and he put me on stall rest for a week.

Late last week, one of my coworkers asked me what happened, and when she heard I fell off my horse, she asked me point blank why I do it.  Why I, and otherwise logical person (her words) who is within spitting distance of her 50th birthday (some additional detail for you) would ride horses on a daily basis.

screen-shot-2013-08-04-at-9-48-46-pmI said something about it being fun and the fulfillment of a lifelong dream when I answered her, but there’s more to it – much more – than that.  Sitting on my couch, reading the sad news from Jersey Fresh, and resting after an early morning run to the barn to meet the vet (my retiree drove a stick into his head, into a sinus cavity – awesome) I’ve been reflecting on that question.  Why do I do this? Because I am going to be back in the saddle as soon as this knee allows.

Why do I do it?

I think the answer I would give would be the same answer that mountain climbers or avid downhill skiers would give: give: danger is no reason to quit, danger is the reason why we wear helmets. However, there’s a lot more to it than thrill seeking. When you get to that point where you’re operating on the edge of fear and performance, something magical can happen. This is the land outside your comfort zone.  

bad-and-naughtyI don’t think any of us seek danger for danger’s sake. However, when you get far enough outside your comfort zone to represent a real risk, that’s where development happens. That’s where learning solidifies. That’s where real success is found. I would also say it’s where confidence is born.

I’m not a great rider, and have achieved nothing noteworthy in the show ring.

The high point of my career on the dressage court is the free walk I got out of a difficult mare in our first test in front of a judge.  She scared the crap out of me, she tested me thoroughly, and she spent the hours before that test walking around on her hind legs. But I got on, and got it done. That was a seminal moment for me.

That said, I’m no daredevil. But there’s something deeper, more fundamental, that happens when you break through your fear, and you grow as a result. The product of that is self confidence, and I guess that’s what makes riding (and other challenging endeavors) addicting.

whoopsIn addition to growing your confidence, this process also generates another important byproduct: grit. As you learn to manage fear, and improve your performance, you also become a grittier person. And you learn that fear can be vanquished.

I remember one ride on the scary mare in particular.  I was learning how to package her power, and during one lesson, I got this absolutely monster trot out of her – it was actually intimidating. I remember shouting my fear to my trainer:
“What is going on with this trot?!?” I spook(probably) shrieked at her.

“You’re getting suspension!!!” she was delighted.

“I don’t like it!!!” I insisted as I went down the other side.

“YES YOU DO” was her unequivocal response.

I eventually did learn how to generate and hold that power, and I’ve learned to seek it and love it. In that moment, your horse transforms into a Maserati with a tuned suspension, super-car steering and power. Wow, the power. It’s intoxicating.

spooky

For me, the Maserati moments are the Promised Land, and getting there is a constant uphill climb. And that climb requires I face my fears, and let me tell you, they are abundant, because the disappearance of confidence in the saddle is a well documented phenomenon amidst women of certain age.

But I don’t want to quit. I’m not going to stay on the ground, brushing my horse’s tail. (Except for when my knee is the size of a cantaloupe, then yes, I will do that.)

Point is, if I’m not going to quit, I have to ride, and that means getting outside my comfort zone on a regular basis.  Sometimes it’s uncomfortable, and sometimes it flat out hurts, but what’s the alternative?  Sitting at home watching sitcoms at night?  Oh, hell no. If you need me, I’ll be at the barn.

Kick on.

 

The perfect dressage saddle for Thoroughbreds

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This used 18″ Bates Isabell is in excellent condition and is for sale at Saddler’s Row in Palatine IL.

It took me a while to find the perfect saddle for my OTTBs, and here it is – my beloved Bates Isabell.  It does not fit Fred, who is a draft cross and requires an extremely wide tree. However, if you’re looking for a saddle that accommodates a wither for a horse with a more normal width, take a look at the Bates Isabell. Specifically, my Bates Isabelle, which is now consigned at Saddler’s Row in Palatine, IL.

I really can’t overstate how much I’ve enjoyed this saddle, and how sorry I am that it just didn’t work for my new extra-wide horse.  In addition to being the most soft, grippy and comfortable saddle I’ve ever sat it, I also really appreciated the fact that it’s super adjustable, featuring both the  Easy Change Gullets and the Easy Change Risers.

The Bates gullet system is well known, but the Risers are a more recent innovation, and I loved the options they gave me.  It’s amazing how much impact a tiny change – adding or removing a shim that changes the saddle fit by mere millimeters – can have on the way your horse goes, but I am here to tell you – the Risers are a genius invention.

 

ecrs_products

Instead of trying to “pad up” a saddle that doesn’t quite fit, adding the Risers – which fit between the saddle and the panels – creates a streamlined way to make the changes we all need from time to time, as our horses’ shapes change.

Need to raise the cantle, level the panels or lower the pommel?  Need to fill in those gaps on the side of the withers?  No problem.  The Risers enable you to do that easily, so you’re not messing around with folded towels or a plethora of pads and shims and whatnot.  I simply can’t say enough good things about the Riser system.

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The Isabell saddles put you in such good balance that you’ll find that you can ride spooks with a lot more confidence (and grace.)

I also love the way the Isabell puts the rider in a balanced, rock-solid position.  No chair seat here – you will be on your seatbones, in good shoulder-hip-heel alignment, which comes in dang handy when riding a spook.  If you are balanced, spooks aren’t nearly as scary.  This I know from considerable experience.

Anyway, my beautiful saddle is in great condition and was meticulously cared-for and stored out of the elements in a heated tack room. It is just a couple years old, an comes with both the large and small Bates Flexiblocks, which attach by velcro so you can move (or remove) as you prefer.

Saddler’s Row takes credit cards and also has a generous 7-day trial, so you can get a few proper rides in and decide whether or not the saddle really works for you and your horse.

http://www.saddlersrow.com/18-bates-isabell-dressage-saddle-consignment-d20831/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back in the saddle – literally

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It’s been ages since I’ve updated the blog, and truth be told, I haven’t had any real news to share, owing to the fact that my lovely, shiny new horse Fred broke his pelvis about a month after he arrived.

Thankfully, the fracture was not displaced, and Fred was able to bear weight comfortably while he healed. However, The healing process took four months, and we just got the green light to go back to work a couple weeks ago.

All was not immediately rosy, however, because if you recall for the last couple installments here on the blog, I was struggling with saddle fit issues.

Once more into the crucible, I thought.

A friend loaned me her Bates Extra Wide dressage saddle, and while it was an improvement, it wasn’t perfect. On a whim, I swung by my my local tack shop to eyeball consignment saddles there.

I have a pretty strong preference for buying used saddles, because I’ve determined that I simply can’t make a decision on a saddle with just one light gentle ride, and let’s face it – most places won’t let you **really** ride in one of their bnew saddles.  In order to assess fit and balance, I prefer to ride in a saddle for several days in the row, to ensure both the horse and I are comfortable, balanced and happy.

imageLo and behold, I was in luck, for there on the rack was a Schleese JES, with the size seat and tree I was looking for. I scooped it up, swiped my credit card, and headed straight for the barn.

Upon arrival, I gave Fred quick, cursory brushing and then plonked the saddle straight onto his back. It appeared to be balanced, and best of all, it seemed to fit very nicely on the sides of his withers, with the panels sitting flush against his body. I tacked him up, adding a fleece pad for a little extra cushion, because the flocking is kind of hard, and off we went.

Fred signaled his approval immediately, stretching into good contact, something that had been evading me with less comfortable saddles.

Now, in addition to being as squishy and out of shape as my mount, I’m also recovering from a two week long bout of bronchitis. We didn’t put it a ton of work, but I was satisfied that the saddle was reasonably comfortable for Fred.

I texted Christy with the message: Put me on your schedule for tomorrow!

I did short lesson with her tonight, and she said that we were ahead of where we left off, despite our downtime, something which we both attributed to improved saddle fit.

I’m calling the fitter tomorrow, to see about scheduling an appointment for her to come out to evaluate and flock the saddle. In the meantime, I’ll put a few more rides into it and be sure that both Fred and I are in agreement. It would be wonderful if we could put the saddle hunt behid us and move on with our lives! In the meantime though, I’m thrilled that Fredders is feeling good, and that we’re starting to get back to work.

I Hope This Lasts

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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.

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