Sunday, August 31, 2008

Dixie and Clipper

Had a lesson with my normal instructor today. (And with my friend C, who is going to start taking lessons with me because she, too, just wants to be a better rider. She's pretty cool.) I rode Clipper, the Arab.

I'm getting my hands figured out. They're not perfect, but I'm getting the hang of "light contact" and which way to pull on the reins and how to keep my hands still while my elbows open and close. Unfortunately, this means that everything else is noticeably falling apart!

I cannot ride in a circle. I can ride in weird wobbly egg shapes, and I can ride in diamond shapes, but not circles. Man. I take it all back, all that snarking I used to do about how riding in circles sounded boooooring. It's hard!

In addition, I can't quite figure out what to do with my legs. I'll get my calves wrapped around poor Clipper's ribs so I can keep nudging him to keep trotting for me, but then my heels pop up and my toes start to slip through the stirrups. So I'll wiggle my feet back and concentrate on keeping my heels down as I post, but then I'll either start riding in diamonds again or I'll forget to nudge Clipper and he'll laze on down to a walk. ARGH!

I used to know how to post. I'm positive of that. Last summer I would ride Champ down narrow dirt trails in the forest at a fast trot, posting effortlessly and neckreining to either side of the trees. What happened? Am I overthinking things? Probably. Hmph.

Well, posting in circles was difficult, so I headed out to the field to ride my non-posting horse. Dixie seemed to know it was her turn and came right up to me. She didn't put up a fuss at all when I saddled her, and she opened her mouth for the snaffle bit.

THE SNAFFLE BIT. Yep, I did it. I finally got up the nerve to try Dixie (née Quinn) out in the Infamous French Link Snaffle again. She's been so... you know... calm lately that I figured she might appreciate it. And you know what? She did. She stood really still for me to mount. Then she waited til I asked her to move out. Then she gaited in a circle, then stopped when I said woah and sat back a bit and pulled on the reins a little. Then we went on a very nice trail ride.

The only thing I can credit is letting her live in a herd for three months. She just really needed to unwind and learn to be a horse. And I made friends with her - I kill flies and offer cookies and scratch the itchy spots. But I ride her too, which used to have plenty of negative memories for her!

It really takes my breath away about all the horses, that they'll come up to me and stand quietly for me to saddle them and ride them. The only possible explanation I have is that it must actually be FUN for them. Yay!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Champ and Poppy

Well, I almost rode two horses today.

I got out to the field pretty early, around 8 am. I walked back to the run-in, whistling and calling softly. My horses were in the (large) run in, along with the other horses. My four were off in their own little section, but sure enough, they'd settled in well enough to want to nap in the run in. Anyway, all the horses were in that half-asleep horse trance. I walked in quietly, gave everybody a scritch, and headed back out. All four came trailing out after me.

I got Champ saddled and bridled, then spent a good hour working with him. He was all jittery - in a new place, with me asking him to leave his beloved Silky? He kept trying to circle around and calling for his buddies and generally being a pitiful nervous wreck. It was pretty uncharacteristic behavior, but moving fields has to be a huge upheaval in a horse's life. I worked him through it, I think - we'd explore out from the run-in, then stop for a few minutes, then go back. I'd let him stand near Silky til he calmed down, then we'd turn around and head out again. The first few trips out were the worst, of course, with nonstop whinnying and jiggling and trying to wheel around and run "home," but he calmed down more on every trip. By 8:45 or so, I was just running Champ through his gaits and thinking more about my riding than his state of mind. We finished up with some slow calm walking to cool down, then I untacked him and hung out with all the horses for a while.

I killed all the big horseflies I could find. Must've squashed five or six of those cicada-sized monster horseflies. I worked my way from horse to horse, scratching itchy spots and whacking flies. Again, I was impressed with how calm Dixie has become. She lets me walk right up to her with "normal" body language, scratch most anywhere, and even smash horseflies. Anyway, once I felt like I'd given them enough "hanging-out" time, Cersei and I left.

We drove across the county to Tractor Supply. I needed a helmet and Centered Riding for lessons, and I wanted to get a bag of oats as a treat for whichever horse got ridden. I found a helmet, and settled on alfalfa pellets for treats, and... well... there was a clearance sale on some English tack. I ended up getting another Collegiate bridle, exactly the same as Dixie's, for $24 instead of $99. And a spare pair of reins for $14, instead of $40. I usually manage to resist the temptation to buy stuff just because it's on sale - but that was seriously too cheap to pass up!

TSC didn't have the book. I headed north into Memphis and hit the closest bookstore, which actually DID have the book. Looped back south and back to Olive Branch. It was only noon, and it wasn't all that hot and I was tired of making excuses about Poppy.

He's not actually going to flip out and kill me. He's not even that tall - maybe 16.1? I don't know why I'm so vaguely intimidated by Poppy - he is one of the sweetest and most honest horses I've ever met. And he loves attention. Yes, I don't have a saddle for him, but he's not such a sensitive little darling that being ridden in my normal western-ish saddle would scar him for life.

First, a bit and bridle. I have a 5.5" full cheek single jointed snaffle and a 5.5" low port pelham, and I figured either would work. (And Poppy came with a 6" mullen mouth snaffle, but he absolutely detests that bit, so it's just gathering dust in a box.) I noticed that the new Collegiate bridle was actually a "full" size, but the almost-too-large bridle I'd been using on Dixie was an "xtra full." Hmmm. I fiddled around with bits and buckles for a few minutes and cobbled together a rig for Pops.

Turns out the bridle fits just fine, but Poppy has outgrown the damn bit. Sigh.

Next, I tried my saddle on him. It fits ok, but looks somewhat ridiculous. Like a toy saddle. He's at least 12" larger in the girth than Champ. Anyway, unsurprisingly, Poppy didn't mind the saddle at ALL. I gave him lots of brushing and scritching as a thank-you for putting up with saddle fitting and a too-small bit, then packed everything back up and went to my parents' for the afternoon.

I ordered a 6" hanging cheek french link snaffle from Poppy seems to like jointed snaffles better than solid ones. Hopefully it'll show up soon, fit my horse, and help me communicate with the big lug. I'm actually really excited about riding him! (Yeah, nervous too, but definitely excited as well!)

Friday, August 29, 2008

Move completed!

Sometimes they're just angel horses.

I got to my uncle's around 7:30. Drove around their field til I found the horses, then slipped a halter on each one just in case. I saddled up Champ, hooked a lead rope to Dixie (cause she was the closest), and ponied over to the gate. Champ was not thrilled but he didn't kick Dixie's head in. Dixie was not thrilled but she didn't try to bolt. We got to the gate and I noticed that both Poppy and Silky had followed us, curious about this new bizarre game.

I opened the gate, walked both horses through, and left the gate open while I remounted. I got the horses moving again, then leaned over and unclipped the lead from Dixie. Dixie and Poppy were both wide-eyed at being in a different field and were too busy staying as close as possible the Great Leader Champ to even notice ropes or the lack thereof. Silky was shadowing along about 25 yards behind us. We uneventfully made our way through that field and into the corral field.

I called the two young dingbat horses as I turned Champ into the corral. But they are dingbats, so they missed the gate and got confused and ran up and down the outside of the corral fence. Then Silky appeared, like an old and dignified matriarch, and walked right through the gate into the corral with me and Champ. The two dingbats bolted in right behind her, just bubbling over with excitement about how this amazing day had progressed so far. I hopped off Champ, untacked him, and slipped out of the corral and shut the gate.

Then I walked back to my truck.

It really is a long way. And you know what? I haven't tromped around meadows early in the morning for a very long time, so I forgot about the dew. My feet got soaked. Worn out wet boots, soaked holey socks, and soaked-to-the-knees jeans. Yuck. Cersei and I eventually got back to the truck, though, and we drove over, picked up the tack where I'd left it outside of the corral, and drove to the house.

We checked in with my uncle, set up a game plan, and drove out to the highway to wait for Bill. He showed up, right on time. My cousin (the second hauler, for Poppy) was also on time. We all convoyed back to the corral, I started grabbing horses, and we got them loaded like we were just walking them into stalls. It was picture-perfect loading. (No credit to me, my horses came to me loading well and I've just never traumatized them about trailers.) Everybody convoyed on over to the new field.

My feet, snugly wrapped in sodden cotton and soaked leather, felt like I'd dipped them in pure poison ivy juice. Seriously, yall, waterboarding is probably horrible and most definitely torture. But wet booted feet? I'd tell an interrogator all my deepest darkest secrets AND spit on a picture of my momma if he'd just dry my poor soaked feet off. :(

I tried to ignore my tortured feet as we got the horses unloaded into the round pen in the middle of the pasture. My guys got to get reunited with Poppy and get their legs back on terra firma. Champ didn't like the looks of the already resident horses, so there was a bit of fence-charging and squealing. Champ, of course, looked really truly angry and hateful - ears back, every bit of his body language warning the other mares that he was about to go postal and KILL them. The mares squealed and pawed and generally looked just as evil right back at him. Then Poppy wanted some of that action, so he charged at the mares on the other side of the fence. It was a spectacular threat display - he had the arched neck, the impulsion, the sliding stop at the fence - but he'd forgotten to pin his ears. He looked like an intensely curious retard-horse instead of an intensely dominant wild herd stallion. Sigh. I've been watching Poppy for what, over a year now? and I'm quite certain that there is not a dominant bone in his body. He started off being pretty socially awkward, and he's slowly learned how to boss other horses around by watching and copying Champ's movements. But he's copying, so sometimes he forgets things. Like pinning his ears. Sigh.

Then I realized that my feet STILL ITCHED. Enough is enough. I drove into town and went to the dollar store. I purchased a pair of super-cheap hiking shoes and a bag of socks, peeled off the ruins of my boots and socks, and carefully dried my pale white prunefeet before wrapping them in new footwear.

With happy feet, I went back out and let my guys out of the round pen. They stuck together as a herd, exploring near the round pen for a bit. They pranced up to the other horses, Champ and a mare squealed and pawed at each other, then my horses spun away and trotted off. It was breathtaking. I hope they enjoy exploring :)

Tomorrow I'm going to do some exploring of my own - Champ or Dixie on the trails, then maybe I'll see how Poppy feels about the Aussie and actual WORK. I'll post tomorrow night, unless Poppy kills me or I'm too tired.

Thursday, August 28, 2008


Horses. My horses are coming to Olive Branch tomorrow!

I'm going to Como around 7:30 tomorrow. I'll halter everybody and lead them from the pasture over to the 1000-yards-away corral. Then when my haulers show up at 9 am, we won't have any horse chasing excitement to contend with.

One of the barn owners, Bill, (the husband of the lady who coached my last two lessons) is bringing the big dually and the 3-horse slant load. My cousin Robert is bringing his 2-horse. Robert will take Poppy, and Bill will take the three Walking Horses. Everybody knows where we're going, so I'll probably just follow the trailers as a safety net.

I am SO EXCITED. Today went sooooo sloooow, and Stephen begged/ordered me to come to work tomorrow afternoon so that's going to be hell, but I have Saturday, Sunday, and Monday to ride. Ride MY HORSES, in Olive Branch, then drive 30 minutes home and sleep and get up and do it again! I put in my 30 days notice here today, too, so in another week or two I'll go find an apartment in Olive Branch.

Ok, last week's dressage lesson. I should post about it before this week's fun gets started and I forget all about last week.

Got to the barn on time - my instructor was still working with the two gals who have the slot before me. I got the Ay-rab (my buddy Clipper) out and started grooming him. Noticed some wee tiny girth galls, so when the instructor came over I showed her.

If it'd been my horse - well, I probably would've cussed a lot and kicked the ground and not ridden him. (One of the few perks of having Too Many Horses is that odds are, at least one is going to be sound to ride - even if it's not the one you wanted to ride.) Anyway, the instructor did the same. She grumbled a bit and felt the tiny little galls and sighed and said "put him up, we'll use Jazz."

Jazz is a huge sorrel QH. He's a little more opinionated than Clipper, but not as experienced or well-trained. I found his itchy spot (crest of his neck) right away so we got along fine.

The very first thing I did was tell her about how unexpectedly hard last week's lesson had been. Basically I said a shorter version of what I'd posted here.

First we worked on neck bends - mount up, get the horse square, then ask him to bend his neck left and right, at a standstill. Jazz was very very stiff to the left - didn't want to bend at all, period, but finally obliged a few times and gave me a tiny bit of left bend. He'd bend to the right no problem.

Then we did quite a bit of riding squares. Ride straight along the rail til you get to a certain point, then look left, then pull* on the left rein only until the horse has made the left turn.

*Ok, I know there are many better verbs than "pull", but basically it boils down to pulling. Not yanking - but not neckreining, which is the only other thing I'm vaguely familiar with. Again with the semantics, I could write an entire post about the amount of force and intent behind it - but yall know I'm not hateful, and when I say "pull left" I mean... pull left.

Pulling just one rein was quite hard for me. I have only ever direct-reined as a prelude to teaching neck-reining, so I had to consciously tell that right hand to STAY STILL. I wanted to pull with left hand and use my right hand to drape the right rein on Jazz's neck. After I consciously mastered not wanting to neck rein, I still wanted to give a little with my left hand. I think I didn't want Jazz to try to turn his head to the left to obey my left hand but run into the right rein/bit. I am scared of contact.

After a little coaxing I managed to try pulling left while keeping right still and you know what? Jazz turned his head to the left, which took up some contact on the right, and turned left without being confused or upset at all. Pretty neat.

(Of course, we did all this in both directions several times. It's just that I know this isn't the clearest example of horsemanship yall have ever read so I'm not going to try to describe it as "the pulling hand and the other hand" or anything. And you know I'm not ready to call it "the opening hand and the giving hand" cause I'll get my terms wrong!)

Then the instructor explained diagonals to me. I never really understood the whole posting diagonals thing, but she walked me through the "why" and I actually get it now. I am feeling particularly clumsy tonight so I am not going to try and relay the explanation to yall.

Then we worked on the bending exercises again, where I'd ask Jazz to bend his neck without walking. He was much more responsive, in both directions. The first thing I thought was what Daun always says about how a good dressage session is supposed to leave the horse more supple than before! (I know she didn't invent that saying and I'm sure the rest of the dressage blogs I read also say that - but honestly, when Jazz bent like Gumby to the left and right I thought about this post first.)

Then my hour lesson had run well over an hour and a half so we quit yapping, much to the bored horses' relief!

I'll update tomorrow about how evil or good my horses were for the move.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Eeee I'm so productive!

1) Finished an extra job which netted me more than enough money to pay my Horse Bill this month.

2) Got the horse move finalized. This took three phone calls. Number of phone calls required is a measure of difficulty for me because I really don't enjoy talking on the phone.

3) Talked to one of my friends from the Old Barn - she's going to be moving down to MS, pretty near the New Barn, sometime before the end of the year. I encouraged her to try some dressage lessons and maybe board her horses with my horses. She will probably eventually do both. We compared notes on recent Old Barn Drama.

4) My one friend called his (distant) cousin who is a judge in central Mississippi. He has been meaning to call his cousin for two months now, but is obviously an even bigger procrastinator than I am. After all this buildup... he got voicemail. Oh well. Friend left a message and hopefully cousin will call friend back and want to call me and hire me. Then I will uproot everything again and move to the middle of Mississippi. Whatever - anything, as long as it's lawyerin' and not in a city!

Now I've answered (some) email and read yall's horse blogs and I'm soooo tired and I've got a normal day of work starting too early tomorrow. Blah.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Bizarre catalog, part 2

I was cleaning up and found The Catalog again.

With sterling silver. And colored stones. Not even real gems - "blue stones," "pink stones," etc. They're very pretty halters! I'm just not sure I'd ever pay $219 to $389 for a halter, no matter how pretty.

I'm used to seeing bizarre and horrible curb bits in catalogs. (Hell, I'm used to seeing bizarre and horrible curb bits on horses!) But snaffles, not so much. Yeah, slow-twist full cheek snaffles are not especially kind, but they're not especially evil either.

How about a twisted wire snaffle? A ONE-EIGTH INCH twisted wire snaffle? Available in stainless steel or copper!

Or a "ridged" snaffle? "A gentler version of the primitive 'woodscrew' bit. Raised ridges with smooth, flattened tips provide pressure, not pain, when used correctly." I just don't see how any contact from a bit that looks like a very large machine screw could be anything but excruciating. It looks exactly like a "wire wrapped" bit, except with much finer ridges.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Another lesson!

The guy with whom I'll usually be training was off this weekend, and possibly next weekend - family in town. So last Sunday I had a lesson with the barn owner. It was interesting. I didn't really enjoy it, but it was worthwhile.

She's big on natural horsemanship (Dennis Reis). I'm big on practical but kind horsemanship. She's a dressage rider, I'm a trail rider. We had a very polite argument running the entire time about semantics and the philosophy of horsemanship. And I worked on some really basic things, which were surprisingly hard for me.

Mainly, I discovered, it's an ego thing for me.

First, she wanted me to drop the reins. Like completely. Apparently, "on the buckle" means "put your hands on that goofy little buckle at the end of the reins." But if your hands are on the goofy little buckle, there's a half acre of reins dangling loose between your hands and the bit, and I had a HUGE problem with that. It's my second ride in a treacherous* English saddle on an Ay-rab** and you want me to basically drop the reins? Lady, are you crazy? If he spooks at a deer, it's going to take me an extra two seconds to get the reins sorted and get some contact and keep us from dying. The instructor was a little nervous about me at that point. I explained that it's really just that I don't trust the horse, that I would be ok with dropping the reins if I were on Champ. She managed to talk me into dropping the reins and ... nothing happened.

*Ok, it's a very comfortable suede dressage saddle.
**The sane, kind, old Arab fell asleep while we were arguing about reins and deer.

Then we talked a while about being a passenger versus riding, and letting the horse decide what to do versus... I dunno, then it got into semantics so I'll probably say this wrong, but "being a leader and asking the horse to do stuff."

I unexpectedly felt extremely defensive. Yes, on a good trail ride to a certain extent you are "just" a passenger, because if you try to micromanage the horse you won't have any fun. Point horse down trail, set speed, let horse pick best route. Yes, you have to let the horse decide what to do, but it's not like he's out there all alone. It's more cooperative than that.

But then I kinda took a step back and thought about the big picture. I am a perfectly good trail rider. I can take a horse out and keep him safe and have a great time and come back alive, every time. (I even come back with the horse 99% of the time, haha.) So why the hell am I even taking lessons? It's not to be a better trail rider - it's to learn something new. Dressage is to me, and it's the opposite of what I've been doing, and it all feels completely wrong. But learning this new crazy stuff does not mean that everything I already know how to do is wrong. Once I realized that, I tried really hard to put aside my ego and listen to what she was saying and experience what was going on with me, my horse, and her.

I am getting the hang of pointing my toes straight ahead. I am getting the hang of keeping my heels in the right spot. I can turn a horse with my legs just fine (at least basic turns, I still don't really understand crazy language like "keep his shoulder from popping out.") I'm close to understanding how to "bring up my energy" / "activate my core" / get the horse to speed up without using my calves. And I'm trying really really hard to learn how to do the elusive halt. It's something more than just sitting back, and it's more than just holding my breath and tensing up all over. Sometimes I can do it (at least a half-halt) and sometimes, nothing.

Uhh, ok, confession time. My first major (lasted half a semester) was biology. But then I realized chemistry was hard, so I switched to history. Got bored with history after a couple years and went all-out philosophy for two years. You know what?

Philosophy sucks. It's mental wanking. It's really really fun when you're a starry eyed 20 year old, and you're exploring all the -isms of the world, and it's just, like, about arguing and thinking deep thoughts while you're high, MAN. But then you hit a difficult concept (Kierkegaard's Knight of Infinite Resignation, I'm looking at you), and you have to write a paper on it, so you just churn out 10 pages of total bullshit and you get an A. Then you start to realize that the entire field is just playing with words, really. If you're really a philosopher, you love it; if you're me, you get very disillusioned, drop out of college again, and eventually go back and finish up in history.

Anyway. Apparently there's some huge difference between "making" the horse do something and "asking" the horse to do something and "being a leader and the horse to do something." I dunno. I have no patience for discussions like this anymore. Like, I know that you cannot make a living creature do anything, it's always got the option of doing something other than what you want... but OTOH, if you give me a round pen and a lunge whip / stick / scary plastic bag, I will damn well show you how to MAKE a horse w/t/c in both directions. But that's not the right way to think about it. Apparently I should be a leader and encourage the horse to lunge / stand still / let me ride / whatever.

I still think it's just semantics. I can ... cruelly, callously, ineffectively (try to) make the horse do what I need. Or I can calmly, sensitively, elegantly, effectively make the horse do what I need. I strive for the latter, no matter what verb you choose to use.

We agreed that all roads lead to Rome. It all comes down to timing, reinforcement, and making the right thing easy to do. I think we both enjoyed the lesson - I know I did, and I suspect I'm an interesting challenge for her to work with.

I don't know who will be teaching me this Sunday. If my usual instructor is still off, it'll be the owner again. I'm not even sure who I'd prefer! I feel like a kid kicking rocks when I think about spending another hour with the owner - "I don't wanna. This is stupid. I wanna trot in circles with the other guy!" but I realize that I probably AM getting quite a bit out of dealing with her. And I *like* her! I'm pretty sure that I "don't wanna" strictly because she challenges my ego.

But this whole thing is not about my ego. It's about me learning something new, and of course I suck at it because it's new. Honestly, I'd be madder 'n hell if I was paying a lot to learn something that I had already figured out how to do.

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. :)

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Most bizarre catalog, part 1

I've been meaning to bring this in from the truck and share it with yall for a while now. I've got some horsey updates (new stable!), but I finally remembered the damn catalog so this comes first!

I don't know how I get these catalogs. I honestly haven't ordered anything horse-related in over a year - my last purchase was $200 worth of dewormer, but I went in on a group buy with a friend and she had it shipped to her. Well, either National Bridle (unlikely), KV Vet, or sold my info. What's even weirder though is that I've moved twice since I last ordered something. And the catalogs are coming to "Me, or current resident, at current address." How do they know where I live? Spoooky!

Mostly I get relevant catalogs. Sometimes it's crap like horse t-shirts and horse figurines and horse throw rugs, and sometimes it's things like "buy your own indoor, built on site for you for only $900/mo!" This catalog, however, is noteworthy.

Anyway, apparently this catalog is oriented toward show owners of Arabs and Quarter Horses. It was pretty normal blah blah horse stuff - blankets and clippers and brushes - til I got to the middle. Direct contact Romel Reins. Ok, they look pretty - all beaded and silver and stuff. How much? Cheapest ones - ON SALE $469.95. Most expensive ("heavyweight") - ON SALE! $849.95. Eight hundred fifty US dollars. For reins. 33 oz split leather reins. With doodads.

I will never understand show people.

Tomorrow - QH show halters.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Movin on up (to the east side)

(Note: I wrote this last weekend, but after I got halfway through I saved it and just came back to it now. Half of what I wrote was not post-worthy so this is the "condensed" version...)

I figured it was about time to make plans to move the horses off of their "summer heaven." After all, my uncle is being amazingly nice by letting them stay there, and now that I'm done with the bar I don't want to overstay my welcome. I figured we'd be talking about it soon, and I was right.

I had every intention of riding Sunday morning. I thought about it the night before and got myself pretty psyched up to RIIIIDE. But then I got out to their field and it was like 95 degrees with about 95% humidity and all my resolve just melted away. I grabbed a brush, stuck a few horse cookies in my pocket, and walked down to the pond so Cersei could avoid heatstroke by swimming. All the horses followed me, kind of halfway greedy and halfway curious. I brushed everybody, even the spotted one - she's definitely more curious and less afraid these days. Yay.

After I was completely out of cookies, and everybody'd been brushed, and Cersei dragged herself out of the water, I started walking back to the truck. They all followed. Awww. I know that they're just hoping for magical cookies, but it's still endearing. Which is good; they definitely need to endear themselves to me now that they're expensive again!

I spent almost two hours visiting with my uncle. It's odd, he's never been particularly friendly to me. But as I got older, I realized that he's just a really taciturn fellow. My dad prodded me into asking him if I could put my horses on his land for the summer, and my dad prodded me to actually talk to him.

I'm pretty confident in saying that my uncle and I quite like each other. We're fairly smart, in slightly different ways, and we have the same core beliefs. I really look forward to talking to him almost as much as I look forward to seeing my cookie monsters! I am going to have to take the time to go visit him like twice a month after the horses leave.

Anyway, he asked when I was thinking about leaving, and I said at the end of the month if that was ok with him? He said that'd be fine; they usually plant that particular pasture in a winter grass crop in September so it'd work out great.

Once I left I decided to start the ball rolling on moving the horses. I'd been considering Hillside Stables for a couple of months - it has field board, a dressage instructor, a covered arena, and it's fairly close to my parents' house. Things like "an instructor" and "a covered arena" are not common in Mississippi - I mean, it's not one-of-a-kind, but "real" instructors aren't lurking everywhere down here.

I talked to the barn manager, who seems like someone I can get along with quite well. Field board, at the place on Polk Lane, is $125/horse/mo, and that's completely reasonable. Full care board at the main stable is - I can't remember - $325 or $350, and that's also reasonable.

Here's my dilemma (and I have a few weeks to settle on a decision):

Do I field board the Walkers and stall board Poppy, while taking a lesson a week to learn dressage? Or do I field board all four for a month or so, while I learn SOMETHING about how to ride dressage, then move Poppy to the arena facility?

Update part
I am going to put all four on field board. It's more affordable, of course. I know it's more risky - what if I just lazy on out again and don't actually ride the two challenging horses? But OTOH, it's pretty dumb for me to pay 3x as much to board a horse on whom I can't actually take effective lessons.*

*I rewrote that sentence twice. It's either "wrong," grammatically, because I dangle a participle ("a horse that I can't take lessons on") or it's "right" ("a horse on whom I cannot take lessons") and clunky. Read it whichever way you prefer, please.

ANYWAY, I am taking a dressage lesson on a school horse on Sunday. We shall see how it goes. If I enjoy lessons, I'll think about putting Poppy in the barn and committing to working with him like 4x a week. If not - well, I still plan to get a good saddle for Pops and working him all fall (October-December). By the end of the year, I should know if I want to keep him or try to sell him as a "prospect" to a good home.

I hate to think of selling him. I hate to think of one day waking up and realizing I have a 15 yo green broke draft gelding, who is generally good for nothing. I love to think about me having a great time riding him, or some other person having a great time riding him. It's very tough. I've got a lot of sympathy, but no magical words of wisdom for Beckz. :(

Friday, August 1, 2008

Notes from the dog park

Yeah, I know, all I do is talk about Cersei. Well, I think she's an awful lot of fun, and I see her more often than the horses, so I am paying a lot of attention to her lately.

It's not like I don't pay attention to her when I'm working a horse every day. It's a different kind of attention these days.

I don't have a natural eye for horses. Maybe nobody has a "natural eye" for these things and it all depends on how early you were exposed to them. I got involved in horses so recently, though, that I remember just how hard I've worked to be able to see what I can see. I mean, at first I couldn't tell the difference between a gaiting walking horse and a trotting quarter horse. Honestly. It was all a huge blur of feet and huge alert alive animal snorting and plunging around. But pretty quickly, I learned how to see the footfalls for a trot and I started trying to learn more things. What's a racky running walk? What's a pacey RW? What's a slightly lame horse look like?

After basic gaits, I tried (and am STILL trying) to learn to "see" dressage stuff. Collection had me stumped for the longest time. I watched youtube videos over and over. I read sites that had actual diagrams of the way a collected horse moves versus the way a strung out horse moves. None of it ever seemed to gel in my head, but I kept at it.

I still don't know what "false collection" is. I mean, I can tell an unhappy horse, but I can't just look at him and say "oh he's traveling hollow and behind the bit." I can almost see the nuances like that, but not yet, not quite. And jumping is a HUGE mystery, but I keep watching Daun's videos and one day I will figure it out.

Anyway... back to my little yellow dog. We went out about 5:30. She didn't want to play with Rogue (goofy rude female Rott) so we threw the ball for a while. Rogue's people left and Daisy (somewhat rude young female Doberman) showed up. Cersei kinda sorta almost played with Daisy, just a bit - at one point she bit Daisy gently on the leg, all on her own - but ultimately, ball. Eventually, Ripley (very pushy funny huge female bulldog) and a little lab mix showed up, and I hid the ball in a tree. Daisy and Ripley and the little mix ran around biting ears and playing chase and generally having a truly wonderful doggy time, and Cersei followed them, on the outskirts, kind of wanting to play and scared to play. Awww.

Ripley's human had brought a very large thick knotted rope, so I got Cersei to start tugging on it then got Ripley to come take my end. Cersei was SO CONFUSED - she loves tuggy game, but she hates for other dogs to try to take her toys! I did that several times, and I started some chase games that got all the dogs involved. Cersei actually got involved enough to bark at the other dogs a few times, and she definitely was more involved than usual.

But what got me thinking about horses was how I judge her tiredness. There's a couple of stages - the spazzed out full of energy 100% go stage, where she will gallop out to the ball and canter back with it. Then there's the kinda tired stage, where she'll gallop out and trot back. Then she slowly gets more tired, til she's almost completely worn out and she gallops out (because the ball is always worth running to get) and then walks back. Well, tonight I stopped the ball-game at the trotting stage and encouraged her to interact with the other dogs. She looked good for a while, but at one point late in the evening she was running behind the pack of running chasing playing dogs and I noticed her canter was really strung out.

I was so proud of myself. I've really worked hard to learn what I know about horses (and dogs, and livestock in general), and for me to see something, think "that looks like X," and know I'm right because I know what's going on? That's just awesome. Really exciting. There's hope for me yet. One day I'll watch Brego jumping and be able to think "Oh, good form but he rushed that jump" or something super-intelligent like that.

For now, I'm just really happy that my girl is learning to play with dogs and that I'm learning to read her body language. :)