Monday, August 11, 2008

Three awesome rides this weekend!

So I rode Rascal, a dressage schoolmaster, and the spotted mare. Each ride, actually, went amazingly well.

Saturday evening I went trail riding with James. We'd decided to go night riding, so we left about 7:30. I was on his horse Rascal, he was on his cousin's horse Surprise, and Cersei trotted along on foot. See, I wanted to go night riding so we could see some deer. Deer are awesome and it's been way too long since I saw them!

I forgot Rascal is terrified of deer. I forgot it so completely, in fact, that the deer caught me totally flat footed. We were all moseying along at a slow walk, loose rein, horses snagging bites of grass in the overgrown field as the riders stared intently into the gloom looking for the deer. Then the deer who'd been hiding in the brush about five feet away broke for the treeline with a huge crashing rattling explosion. Rascal was sure it was the end of the world, and he snatched his head up while I started to fumble for the reins. He reared, I instinctively leaned forward and got my hands where I wanted, and he turned in midair. As he came down - facing Surprise, who was completely bored by the deer and the stupid gelding - I pulled his head left and kept him turning straight back around to face the deersplosion. I hollered something like "It's a DEER you goddamn idiot, deer don't eat horses!" and then Cersei came crashing clattering thrashing through the weeds straight back toward us. Rascal started to tense up to explode again and I yelled "THAT'S MY DOG! DON'T YOU EVEN THINK ABOUT IT!" The dog popped out in front of us, Rascal did a little hop to the right, and it was all over.

I kicked Rascal back to a slow walk forward and got a huge case of the giggles.

This is my third autumn. I know that horses are zombies in the heat, and they suddenly come back to life as soon as the weather starts to cool off. My first cool windy ride on Champ, about two weeks after I got him, was such an amazing shock to me that I am still always kind of nervous about that first cool day. It's incredible to me how horses just wake up. Anyway, I always halfway suspect that I have forgotten how to ride. As soon as the weather cools off, the horse is going to snap and kill me, or I'm just going to fall off on my own and the horse will run back to the barn, laughing at the stupid human.

Saturday night, I was completely unready for any kind of action. But I really did do everything right when something did happen, and I wasn't even scared. (Well, to start with, I shouldn't have been gazing off into la-la land with limp reins at night on a dark trail.) I started getting my reins back, stayed balanced through the rear, kept the horse from bolting, and got the horse's mind back on ME.

So, another autumn fear is out of the way.

We saw a muskrat or otter in the pond on the way back, but that was it. There were quite a few four wheelers out nightriding too, and the rest of the deer were ... somewhere else, who knows. Stupid deer, come out and entertain me please!

Sunday morning I went out to the new stable for a dressage lesson, the very first formal riding lesson I've ever had. This first lesson was a chance for them to feel out what I know and where I'm at. First, they asked if I ride with active legs or not so much leg - I thought about it for a while and said I suppose I ride with less leg. Most TWHs are pretty reactive to any kind of leg pressure, so I generally keep my legs off the horse.

The instructor and manager consulted each other, then put me on a grey Arab, a quite kind old schoolmaster who's just a bit too responsive to leg pressure to be perfect for novices. Clipper's barefoot, a very nice weight, with fairly nice hooves, no back soreness, not a great topline but I suspect he's pretty old. Just a touch of that old-horse swayback, yknow.

A digression: All the horses in that barn are in good flesh, well groomed, totally relaxed but not stall-crazy. The stalls are clean and bedded with piles of fluffy chips, and the stalls are actually "horse safe." No nails sticking out, no milk crates nailed to the wall to hold buckets, no extension cords tacked to the wall above the horses' heads... Wow. I've seen fancier barns, on TV or pictures online, but this place is perfectly functional, perfectly safe, and is full of perfectly normal and content horses. It's just dreamy.

Anyway, we headed down to the covered arena (COVERED! and there's RAKED SAND STUFF, not clods of dirt with weeds!). We spent a lot of time talking and did some basic walking and trotting. I got a couple of canters when I only meant to trot - Clipper is in fact very responsive, and I am totally used to riding Champ and just yelling "Trot!" until he trots. Actually politely asking with my calves is new and fun! A lot of new and fun things - keeping my toes pointed straight ahead was amazingly hard, and I never realized how much they pointed out to the sides.

The instructor was quite pleased that I do in fact know how to ride kinda ok and I do in fact have some vague natural balance. I *know* he was expecting the typical gaited horse chair seat. Even when I think I'm sitting straight, my heels aren't actually under my hips, but they're pretty close for a gaited rider. Seriously, this is really exactly how everybody else I know rides.

I left with a bunch of new stuff to think about, and new ways to sit, and old things I'd half-forgotten about to start doing again. It is SO EASY when you're just riding along a trail to quit looking where you want the horse to go and actually look around at the scenery. But yep, a dressage horse really does go where you're looking. I steered a little squiggly s-shape at a walk around the arena just by looking at different points as we walked. Lots of fun.

The first major things I need to work on - heels further back. Toes pointed straight ahead. Keep my hands still. Get that elusive "feel" for asking for a halt with my body - I've been reading about it for years, and I still don't "feel" it. Those are the things I know I "do wrong," and I know I can correct on my own. I can actually glance down and see where my toes have decided to point, or where my heels are wandering off to.

So I'm doing a weekly lesson on Sundays now. I am definitely excited. I am going to LEARN STUFF. I feel like ... like I'm ready to learn stuff without just blindly trusting whatever the instructor tells me? Like the instructor would say "Turn your toes in more toward the horse and it will change how your knees grip" and I'd turn my toes in, think about how it felt, and go "Yep, you're exactly right, it's better this way." I have a base of my own knowledge to compare what I'm being told against.

I'm really proud of what I've done on my own. I am not a perfect rider, not at all, but I've done quite a bit just by reading blogs and books and sites and forums, riding many miles on some very kind patient horses, and THINKING about what's going on. It was really important for me to teach myself to ride, at least somewhat, before I found someone to teach me. I am fairly confident, because I've made a lot of stupid mistakes and made a lot of good decisions and survived them all. I think at this point, as I continue to improve, I'll still be self-confident but the horses and I will all be better off.

And finally, my very own crazy spotted mare.

I think her name is Dixie. I suppose. I reserve the right to change it again if something else feels right - god knows I feel dumb calling my horse Dixie. Every 10th QH and every 4th TWH down here is named Dixie.

Anyway - I rode her Sunday afternoon. I really had a halfass plan when I brought them to Como, I just wasn't sure if it was a good plan so I didn't talk too much about it. Dixie was broke for the show ring by some heavyhanded guy with a whip. She only knew to gait as fast as she possibly could at any time there was someone on her back. And the person I bought her from didn't even try to retrain her - the woman I got her from always has helpers around to hold her horses.

I spent months, off and on, trying to get Dixie to understand that she's actually supposed to stand still long enough for her clumsy human to climb all the way up in the saddle and get both feet in the stirrups before she takes off straight ahead at a fast rack. I'd finally gotten her to stand for mounting, dismounting, and general fidgeting when I moved the horses down.

I never felt like Dixie was calm, though. Never. I'm not sure if she's a nervous horse, a normal young mare, or just a frightened horse. My plan was to just turn her out with my other three relatively normal horses in a big field and leave her alone til she calmed down. If my plan had failed and she'd decided to stay a wild horse forever... well, I'd eventually have caught her and moved her to the new place and tried something else. But it did work, actually.

Honestly, I did not touch Dixie at all for a month. She stayed out of range of me and I just showed up, brushed everybody else, put my hands all over everybody else, and left an extra cup of oats on the ground out where she could get some if she wanted them.

The second month, the flies were terrible so I started putting that fly drop stuff on everybody. I had to get close enough long enough to put three big drops on her, but that was it - I knew she wanted to bolt, so I just walked up calmly with horse cookies and stuffed cookies in her face with one hand while I squirted fly stuff on her with the other. Then I'd walk away.

The last few times I've gone down, even without the oats or cookies or anything, she has been very very curious about me. When I could get a moment alone from Poppy and Champ, she'd come up to me, all snorty and wild eyed, and sniff my hand and let me touch her head, just a bit. And that time when she kicked the fence down and went chasing cows, she was DELIGHTED when I came to rescue her.

Anyway, I'd had such a good wild ride on Rascal and such a good calm ride on Clipper. I really wanted to see how Dixie would do. I parked my truck outside the horses' field and walked in.

Dixie came up and stuck her head in the halter when I called. We walked through the gate, I tied her to my truck and brushed her down, and she was calm. She needed to smell the pad and saddle before I put them on her, but she was ok with it. I put Champ's bridle on her and damn if it wasn't way too long so I had to adjust it three different times to get the length right. She was a-ok with that. She really wanted to dance right off when I moved to her side to mount up, but I just quietly stayed at her flank and told her to whoa and eventually she stood for me. I swung up. She stood stock still.

This is HUGE. She stood for me to mount and she stood when I was getting settled. Huge.

Then I gave her the tiniest nudge and off we went and I felt like the Queen of the World on my amazing showy steppin' fool of a mare.

Dixie was very very nervous to leave the herd and go off into the distance, so I did a lot of very small circles in and out of her comfort zone. She'd have to go out at my speed and in the direction I wanted, then back over by the other horses (who stood patiently at the fence the whole time, watching us), then she'd get to stand and look at them. When she sighed or relaxed, we'd head out again. I wanted, more than anything, for this ride to be a GOOD experience for her. I think she's had a lot of bad experiences in her life. I think she is finally maybe starting to think about trusting me. I don't want to scare her when I'm just now getting some rapport with her.

When she's not panicking, she's amazingly responsive. I love this horse and I really think she's going to be outstanding as she starts to trust me more and more. I have had some moments (ok, many moments) when I wasn't sure why I'd ever bought her... but I'm so glad I did. She's a challenge but SO MUCH FUN!

This horse has a lovely trot and canter at liberty. She has a lovely RW under saddle, and a clumsy hesitant canter under saddle. I really want to learn enough to start teaching her dressage too. I know for a fact that you don't "ruin" their gait by letting them trot or canter - you just have to establish different cues for "gait please" and "trot please." One day I'll learn enough to teach her that, and we're going to be unstoppably awesome then. :)


  1. You remind me of myself with my MFT! He was a racking fool and I had him from the time he was a yearling. I did endurance with him and also dressage and you are absolutely just takes teaching them a cue for the gait you want. Carmon

  2. I can't believe their riding postion! (I looked at a few of the other vidoes on Youtube while I was at it).
    Are they riding a horse or slumped on the sofa?!!?


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