Touch Wood

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Admiring himself.

It’s been a bit more than a week since we moved into the new barn, and for the last four days, Fred has been moving soundly.

*touches wood.*

Fredders is in an individual turnout, however, time outside has been limited due to extremely cold and icy conditions.

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He has a spacious stall, hay to chew on throughout the day, a window to peer out of and best of all, a friendly mare (with whom he is in love) in the stall next door, so staying inside is not the worst thing that can happen to Fred.  In fact, it’s probably been the best, as he’s acclimated to his new surroundings and hasn’t managed to re-injure himself in the process.

While he is still giving me a little grief at the beginning of each ride in the form of some balking, we get through it pretty quickly and the rest of the rides have been forward, frisky and fun.   I’m focusing mostly on trot sets with some easy bending, because more than anything, he needs conditioning. That said,  we did some of the easiest canter transitions we’ve ever done last night – simply sitting a beat and a slight raise of my inside hip and we were off.

I’m going to continue to ride with Christy, however, our lesson last night was canceled due to the aforementioned icy conditions. I’ll get something scheduled this weekend and maybe we’ll have some video to share soon. 😁

 

 

Course Correction

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Second ride (and first selfie in the arena mirror) at the new barn.

Good God. It’s been nearly eight months since I posted here. It’s funny how changes in unrelated areas of your life can ripple through your entire personal ecosystem, but that’s the best way I can explain my silence.

The long and short of it is this – 2015 is a year I am still trying to forget. Fate dealt me a series of punches to the gut, ranging from my mom’s diagnosis with a very scary cancer to losing Derby.  2016 was my rebuilding year of sorts. Very simply, I decided there was a lot in my life I wasn’t thrilled with (Mom being the exception, she’s doing really well) and it was time for some course correction. I’ve made a couple big changes and more are in the pipeline.

In the “Done” column is a biggie – my career. I spent the better part of the last year in a job that was a spectacularly bad fit. Having a strong dislike for my work was an entirely new and wretched experience, and I didn’t realize how exhausting the attendant stress and frustration were until I got out of Dodge. Late last year, I landed a fantastic new job, and couldn’t be happier – both with the work itself, and the fact that I got this item off the to-do list. The job change is foundational to my other plans.

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I’m 70% of the way to achieving my fitness goals, and it shows (even when wearing puffy winter duds.)

In the “Homestretch” column is another biggie – my fitness. There’s no sidestepping the fact I really let things slide in that department. I’m not going to talk numbers but let’s just say this: I am 70% to a goal I set for myself last April, and I will achieve it before April 2017 rolls around. My pants are smaller, my endurance is greater and I’m a lot stronger across the board – core, arms, back, you name it.

Some other course corrections are still in the works, but let’s leave those for another time, because it’s past time for me to be talking about the horses.

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Uulke Farm in Barrington is Fred’s new home.

Persistent soundness issues with Fred contributed to my frustration over the last year. He recovered nicely from the broken pelvis, but we never really got going in 2016 because one thing after another would knock us off track. A banged up ankle. Bowed tendon. Windpuffs. Bucked shin. Popped splint. Pinched nerve. One thing after another, cumulating with – horrifyingly – sore footedness that threatened to turn into mechanical founder, exacerbated by thin soles and irritation from the packing under the bubble pads I had put on for winter.

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Rumors you’ve heard about the place having chandeliers are true.  Prettiest barn EVER.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly but expecting different outcomes. I am not insane, so last week I moved Fred to a new barn four minutes from my home. It has individual turnout – not my favorite but necessary at this juncture – amazing arena footing and top-notch care. It also has a chandelier in the foyer and a club room that looks like it was decorated by Ralph Lauren himself. Fred can’t believe his luck, and I can’t believe how much I’m paying to board there, but the proximity to home has been fantastic.

And best of all, Fredders is going sound (note: I just tapped wood after typing that.) It’s been very cold (low teens) for the last few days, so I shouldn’t be surprised by the energy he’s displaying, but as discussed previously, he’s not the most forward-thinking horse, so when I give him a little squeeze and get left in the back seat, it is surprising.

We’re not going to be doing anything too interesting very soon – he is out of shape, so we’re doing a lot easy work to put a good foundation on him. But I think we’ll get going with some lessons midweek. Fingers crossed for continued soundness.

In other news, Jag just turned 21. He’s fat, hairy, happy and apparently, semi-feral, as he got loose yesterday and ran his own personal Kentucky Derby around the property where I keep him.

I’m going to call it a wrap for now, folks, but I promise an update in short order. I’m well and truly back. I wish you all a belated but no less enthusiastic happy new year!

 

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.

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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.

 

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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

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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.