Fair weather friend?

This picture taken by Caitlin pretty much sums up my day. We were at the show, but missing from action.

Well, the show season is a wrap, and for me, it ended with disappointment.  Yesterday’s IDCTA championship show was a complete bust for Derby and me.  He loaded and unloaded beautifully, an settled in nicely.  But once we got tacked up, left the warm barn and out into the crisp, breezy morning and prepared to warm up, Derby became unglued.

The problem began with a tippy mounting block, which tipped as I stepped up into the iron. I got a bit hung up and am so glad my friend Brittany was holding Derby, limiting how far he could go with me clinging like a monkey to his side.

That incident upset him, and he developed horror of the mounting block. Great.  I walked him around for a while as the clock ticked down on our ride for the championship, and then – with Christy feeding sugar cubes and Brittany holding him, managed to mount.

The warm up ring was busy, but we’ve handled that before. However, yesterday Derby just wasn’t with me. He wasn’t going to relax and walk, so I started to trot him.  We changed directions a couple time, and I put him on a circle to get some control over his hind legs.   But it quickly felt like it was going to go south as Derby started to feel uncharacteristically light on his front end.  His neck was like aboard and there was no softening.    It felt like it was escalating to me, not improving. We didn’t last long.  I dismounted, because I felt like we were going to become a menace (and risk) to the others in the warm up, and ourselves.

I was bitterly, bitterly disappointed.  The show venue was beautiful, and I was so happy that we hand managed to qualify.  Our work has improved daily.  I really felt read to put in a great ride. But, as they say, man plans and God (and your horse) laughs.

I walked Derby around a bit, and he got worse and worse.  So we went inside, and I put him on the longe.  He got a good workout in the quiet indoor longe arena.  I took him back outside.  Any better?  No.  He was right back to his bad behavior, refusing to even walk nicely out of the barn. We walked all over the show grounds, and while he did settle enough to grab a few bites of grass when we were out of the center of the action, when we got near the warm up, he became unhinged again.

Once we got back home, I saddled up and rode my clean, shiny horse in my clean, shiny tack, in my white britches and sparkling boots.  We had some really nice work,  though Derby was pretty tired after his excursion and various inappropriate expenditures of energy.   He started to fuss and I put my leg on and gave him a swat with my new (longer) whip.  He came to, and we ended on a really good note, with some lovely trot work into a very good, on-the-bit halt.

I’ve concluded that (for now) he’s a fair-weather show pony.   Our three earlier outings in the spring and summer weren’t as bad as our two fall trips.  And past experience strongly suggests that Derby does get squirrely when the temperatures initially dip.  So I’ll focus my efforts on the earlier shows next year.  We’ll save cold-weather outings until our partnership (and my skills) are truly solid.

The 2013 season begins tonight at 6:30 sharp.



After all, we *are* training war horses here …

Oliver's first ride outside

I can’t claim the hilarious line that I used for this post’s title.  It appeared to great guffaws on one of the dressage discussion boards I frequent.  But when it appeared months ago while I was still riding Maddie it got me thinking about dealing with a distracted horse.

The historical roots of dressage are in fact based in the military training.  And it’s not difficult to imagine the utility of a highly responsive mount that is forward and willing when riding into battle.   A leg yield may very well evolved as a means to get a better angle for wielding one’s broadsword.

Christy and I talked about this one night when Mads was being a handful.  I had discovered – either by serendipity or accident – that riding a cloverleaf pattern of small (12m or so) loops was a great way to refocus the mare’s attention on me.   This was an important lesson for me – I learned that I had a lot more control over spooky situations than I thought I did.  I learned that if I just sat up and really rode, I could get through the mare’s moments.

There are a few reasons why this works, Christy explained.  First and foremost, horses look for leaders.  When you take charge unequivocally, you assert yourself as the leader, and the horse is very likely be happy to be relieved of the decision-making, and to follow willingly along.   Conversely, when you abdicate the leadership role to the horse, you also abdicate the decision-making to a lower-order animal who thinks that flight is a great solution to most problems.

Secondly, Christy noted that when I sat up and rode, I went from being more passive to being a  very active rider, truly riding every stride.  When I watch Christy, I can see that she’s riding every moment, every stride, constantly testing her connection, bending, softening, giving, taking, half-halting, driving — she’s never just cruising along. Riding every stride is something that I don’t yet do with consistency.  And it’s  a key differentiator between a good rider and one that’s less effective.  When I have had these moments, Christy has told me that I’ve never looked better – that the mare’s back was up, she was rounded and engaged end-to-end.  And I remember how good that felt – how that big mare transformed into a Ferrari, nimble and responsive.

These experiences and conversations gave me tools that I use frequently when dealing with a looky horse, and they came in handy yesterday when I took Oliver for his first ride outside in the outdoor arena.  It was a gorgeous, sunny day, breezy enough to keep bugs away.  Oliver was really good as I mounted and we walked around. However, I wasn’t letting him just dink aroud on a loose rein.  We started with stretching and bending, and walked in serpentines and circles to warm up, and get familiar with the surroundings.   For a while we were alone in the ring (though there is a turn-out right next to the ring, so we weren’t truly alone) and Oliver was a champ.  We kept working on stretching (and I focused on giving giving giving at the right moment) and Oliver really did well.

Bending, and staying on the bit. Good boy!

Some others came back outside just as we picked up a trot.  Oliver decided to do a tiny spook at the mounting block, which was ridiculous, and earned himself a smack on the butt with the crop, and trotting in the deeper sand.  Off we went, circling and working our way around the ring.  Determined to not let him get away with that monkey business, I really rode him – doing lots of bending and flexing, and keeping as on the bit and round as I could.  He tried to look at the mounting block again, but complied when I applied my inside spur and kept the outside rein firm.  He was more worried about the poles in far corner of the ring, so we spent some time working down there, halting near them, and eventually eating some dandelions from Christy’s boyfriend’s hand as we stood in that corner.

My assertive riding  was done with keeping looking and spooking to a minimum in mind – I really wanted Oliver to have a nice, confident, pleasant ride outside – but it came with another benefit.  I got better quality work from Oliver than I ever have.  Hopefully we’ll get some pictures – Peaches was out with her girls and they had a camera.  I’m eager to see what we looked like because it really felt good!

Two rides, two results.

I had two rides on Oliver recently – one on Saturday, and one tonight.  On Saturday he was unfocused and a bit tense, but I did very cruelly ride him right as the other horses were being brought in and fed, and Oliver registered his discontent by doing his best to ignore me, calling to other horses, and keeping his ears forward, pointedly not listening to me.  He was a little squirrely at the beginning of the ride, but I put him straight to work, and we ended up having a decent ride, but  he never truly relaxed for me.  Despite his total unhappiness with my delaying his dinner, we did book one important accomplishment –  I got him to spiral in and out, at the walk, in both directions.  He’s beginning to understand leg aids, and best of all, I was able to get him to move alway from my right leg when circling right.  So that was a definite win.

Tonight I showed up after dinner, and Oliver was back to his mellow self.  We had a very nice ride, and worked on a number of things.  First, as we warmed up, I worked on steering correctly – from inside leg and outside rein.  He’s not perfect, but he improves with each ride.  I rode shallow serpentines and figure-8’s and at the end of the warm up, he was turning nicely for me.  I went back to this exercise mid-ride during a walk break, and also got  good responses.  This is good progress.

We also did quite a bit of work trotting.  I had my spurs on tonight, and warmed up carefully, working on keeping my leg in position with my toes forward, and my foot at the girth, not curled back.  I did the balancing exercises that Christy has me working on, and was pleased to find that Oliver held a pretty steady rhythm for a change, and he is also accepting more contact from me, and stays relaxed.  This is also some nice progress.  He used to bear down and speed up whenever his rider touched his mouth.

However, I noticed that as we worked, he started to speed up randomly, often at a moment when I was giving him little or no real input.  Ha!  Busted! I think he uses speeding up as an evasion, so whenever he did that, I sent him forward and kept him there.  We just got a couple loads of sand in the arena, and the footing is deeper – and takes more work.  He started to tire and wanted to slow down, but I kept him moving forward to make the point that the human – not the horse – sets the tempo.  We did more serpentines and figure-8s while trotting, and lo and behold, the evasions stopped once he was convinced that I was paying attention.

We finished up the ride working on transitions.  His downward transition in particular isn’t as crisp as I’d like to see – he really needs to transition from the seat.  I started by saying “whoa” while giving him a big half halt with my seat, and closing my fingers on the reins, which increased the contact.  Gradually, as he got the hang of it, I dropped the “whoa,” and for the last few, I was *almost* able to abandon the reins. Almost but not quite.  However, he made good progress, and I could feel him stepping nicely under himself when I half-halted him, which is exactly the correct response to this important aid.  Good boy, Oliver!

We finished up working on relaxing and stretching. He is hard (for me at least) to stretch, and he’s still not working over his back enough to speak of – getting him to stretch into the bit is the next thing on my mental to-do list for Oliver, behind relaxing, building the strength to move rhythmically and steering correctly. At this point, I’m happy if I can get him to stretch into a decent working walk – on my terms and at my invitation. He likes stretching, but does it on his own, almost rooting (and makes  me wonder at times if he’s using this unbidden behavior to evade.)  He relaxed, and stretched a bit, and then halted promptly from my seat.  He earned his cookies tonight!