Wednesday, December 26

Isn't that harsh?

If you've been around horses long enough, there's a good chance you've been questioned on your choice in equipment at some point. For those who are not familiar, whips, spurs, and bits can seem like torture devices; and they can be, when used improperly. However, when coupled with correct training, these are valuable tools for refining communication with our horse. One piece of equipment that's particularly scary looking is the spade bit. With its straight mouthpiece, high port, and braces, it certainly looks intimidating!

Spade bit with braces. Source

I compare the spade bit to a pair of tall stiletto heels. The average person should not wear them. It takes practice and strong ankles to avoid a disaster, but someone who can pull them off, WOW! A spade bit is not for the inexperienced horse or rider. It is not a means of controlling the horse. The spade bit is a finely tuned communication tool. It takes years of training and a rider with soft cues to use a spade bit properly.

A spade bit is considered a signal bit, as the horse feels the bit begin to rotate in their mouth, they know to collect up and prepare for the riders coming cue. This is different from a snaffle bit, which is used to actually move the horses head and neck in order to show them what the rider wants. If a horse needs guidance on how to position their body, they are not ready to be ridden in a spade bit. It's also different from a curb bit which uses leverage to communicate the posture that the rider would like the horse to take. For some excellent photos and a more in depth explanation of spade bits check out this article by Mark Bridges.  These bits were used originally by cowboys spending long hours working from horseback. Their work required the horse to be easily guided with very little movement from the rider's hands. Here's a video of a bridle horse in training. He is being ridden in the 2 rein. He still has a small bosal hackamore in addition to carrying and receiving signals from the spade bit.

This is another great video showing the mechanics of the spade and explaining a little more about its function.

Hopefully this information has helped you better understand a piece of tack that is commonly misunderstood. I know I learned a lot :)

Monday, December 24

To Help or Not To Help

I have a truck. I drive it from A to B. I love my truck and try to care for it properly. However, I do not know much about care beyond putting in gas, checking oil and tire pressure, and which noises mean get it to the mechanic ASAP. I'd say my knowledge of cars is about the average horse owner's knowledge of horses. In general, they can accomplish basic care, but on occasion, they may miss something very big and important. When someone tells me something about my truck, I am always receptive and grateful. After all, I love my truck, and I can't afford a new one. Why then, are so many horse owners less than receptive to advice regarding their big furry pets?

A friend of mine relayed a story that illustrates my point. She was out at the barn on a windy, chilly day. Walking past one of the saddling areas, she noticed a horse secured in the crossties by the bit. She felt obligated to let the owner know the potential damage that could be done to her horse, and, rather than being thanked, was given a less than polite response to the effect of, "mind your own business".

This owner may or may not have known the risks she was taking. Should her horse move and feel the pressure from the crossties on his bit, he could flip over, break his bridle or jaw, or even sever his tongue. Maybe these risks to her horse were worth it, but did she think of the risk to others? What if he did break the crossties and go bolting across the property? What if he spooked a young horse in the nearby arena? What if his panic caused another horse to run through a fence and get injured?

In my training to be a riding instructor, we discussed liability issues at length. In Washington state, horseback riding is considered an inherent risk activity. By engaging in activities on or around horses, you are acknowledging the fact that horses are big dangerous animals and that you could be hurt by one through no fault of anyone. However, if someone is negligent, they are no longer protected by inherent risk.  The gal teaching the class explained negligent behavior  like this, if you can foresee a problem and you choose to continue the same course of action, you have accepted liability for your actions. So, the question is, was my friend out of line to say something? In my opinion, she would have been negligent not to. Even though it was not well received, she did the right thing.

Around the barn, we often receive unsolicited advice. Some is helpful, but most of it is somebody's personal opinion and may or may not even apply to the situation at hand. So, when to help and when not? I try not to butt in with my two cents unless it would be negligent not to. This means many times, I leave the area cringing and biting my tongue. Sometimes, I'll ask the person if they'd like a tip from my experience. Coming from this angle lets the person decide whether or not they have to hear my opinion, and, oftentimes, it makes it easier for them to receive what I have to say. Seriously, nobody wants to feel like they have been doing the wrong thing with their horse. Just like a parent doesn't want unsolicited advice on how to raise their child.

On the flip side, I always say yes when somebody asks if they can give me a tip. After all, their experience is different than mine. What if they hold the key to the problem I have been struggling with? Yes, it's hard for my ego; I don't like to feel as if I don't know everything, but it's ridiculous to act as though I do. Also yes, often the advice is completely useless to me; either I've already tried it, it doesn't actually apply to my problem, or I've chosen not to employ that method for any number of reasons, but this knowledge is still useful to have. I'll put it in my toolbox for a different situation, thank the person, and move on. Next time you feel your defenses coming up, remember, we're all just fumbling along in this pursuit together.

Tuesday, September 18

Click, Treat, Repeat

I've been experimenting with some clicker training with one of my horses. I stayed away from this method for a long time because I want my horses to be obedient because I asked them to, not because they know I have a treat in my pocket. I still feel that way, but decided to give it a try with Wilson. He's a sweet boy, but he isn't great at connecting the dots to figure out what I want. In addition, he gets a little flustered and frustrated when he doesn't understand what is expected of him. I thought this would be an effective way to provide him with better feedback to help him learn.

So far, we've done two sessions, and we both like it! We started our first session introducing the concept. When his head was straight ahead, he got a click and a treat. He doesn't get treats very often so was offering his Flehmen response "smile" frequently. I went ahead and gave it a cue... and... Viola!! He had learned his first trick. It was almost too easy. Next we worked on targeting (touching with his nose) a tennis ball stuck on the end of my whip. It was interesting watching his learning process. He had a few good touch, click, treat repetitions, but then he had to check the limits. He touched the stick, the handle, my hand, my pocket, and then he just stopped and looked at me for a minute.... And then he bit the ball. He had made the connection. Ball= good. Everything else= no cookie.

Our second session was much the same, and I was able to add the "touch" cue to the target work. We worked on touching a cone and targeting the ball in different places.

I'm excited to add a new method to my bag of tricks. I hope to use the clicker to train showmanship maneuvers and some stretching and strengthening exercises like belly lifts.

Thursday, September 13

Are You Feelin' It?

I recently stumbled across this article entitled, "The Timing and Coordination of the Aides", by Thomas Ritter. One of my pitfalls as a rider is poor feel. I have worked diligently to improve this area, but my riding is still more intellectual and instinct based than feel based. While this has worked for me at the level which I currently ride, if I want to continue to improve, I need to seriously work on this area. I particularly liked the way he explained what the rider feels at each stage of the movement of the horse's leg. Here are some nuggets:

"The rider’s pelvis is connected to the horse’s pelvis. The movement of the horse’s hips communicates itself to the rider’s seatbones. When the hind leg touches down and carries the load, the rider’s pelvis gets pulled back a little toward the cantle. This is most clearly noticeable at the walk. At the same time, the rider feels a little bump under his seat bone on the same side, because the horse’s hip rises as the hind leg touches down. The rider also feels a pulse in the rein of the same side at the same time. There is also a little impact in the stirrup that the rider can feel in his toes."

"When the rider’s seat is pulled forward in the saddle, the hind leg that had just touched down has passed the vertical and is now pushing the load forward. The hip and hock are extending, while the stifle is flexing. This is most noticeable to the rider in the walk and the second beat of the canter, when the inside hind leg and outside front leg are on the ground together. This is the moment in which the driving seat aid can be applied with success, in order to ask the horse to push more and lengthen his stride. "

While this has all been explained to me previously (over and over and over), for some reason I wasn't able to put the pieces together into anything useful. Ritter's descriptions helped me bridge the gap between what I understand intellectually, and what I will actually be feeling as the horse moves. This allows me to put much more of the theory I understand into action.

Now it was time to practice. I was focusing on feeling the different motions in my seat as my horse used his hind legs and adjusting "air time" and "ground time" of these legs. I tried this out on two of my horses, Wilson and Jasper.

Wilson is often labeled as a "western horse". This is horse people code for he doesn't like to pick up his feet. As we rode I was working to keep him straight with his shoulders in front of my hips and using my seat to accentuate the sliding forward part of the stride to help him take longer strides. We were seeking more air time in his stride, and it was hard work for both of us. Eventually he put the pieces together, and this led to a much more balanced trot without as many tries to go up to the "easier" canter.

Jasper is naturally a forward mover, but he has a traction problem. When his hind end gets out of control, he wants to buck to get it back underneath him. During our ride, I was focused on the backwards feeling in my seat to help him keep his feet on the ground just a little bit longer. This helped reduce the number of times he lost traction. At times he would get bogged down, but by wrapping my legs around his belly and lifting with my calf, I was able to bring him back together.

At all times during both rides, I was very conscious of how I was influencing my horses. When my seat was not balanced and even, they would inevitably follow me into crooked oblivion. That's when we would start all over again. Working with the mechanics of the horse in order to most effectively affect their way of going takes a lot of concentration on my part, but ultimately leads to a horse and rider team who appear seamless.

Saturday, August 25

Fake It 'til You Make It

We talk about confidence a lot in the horse world. If a horse does not have a confident leader, he feels he needs to take charge, and that can lead to all sorts of frustration for his human partner. I find, in general, confidence is not based on knowledge. People either walk into their first lesson with me "knowing they can do this" or "hoping they can do this" and their previous experience has a very small amount to do with which side they land on.

The "hoping they can do this" folks are usually the ones who want to succeed the most. They are also usually the ones who have a hard time. Different horses respond differently to a lack of confidence. They may be inattentive to their handler on the ground, wiggly, or hard to steer. No matter how it manifests, these horses are not being bad, and their training isn't ruined; they are just responding to their leader.

Unconfidence can be caused by fear, lack of familiarity, or a past experience. It's a terrible roadblock to learning more about horses and can be difficult to overcome. So, how can we build confidence? We just fake it. Figure out a realistic goal for your ride and make an action plan if your horse does not do what you ask. Having plan A and plan B puts purpose into your actions. Your horse will definitely notice this. Often, this is all it takes to bring a horse with a mind of his own over to your way of thinking. The more successes you have, the more confidence you will build. The key is to take it slow, pick realistic goals, and stick with it!

Friday, July 27

Excuses, excuses

Hi, readers! It's summer and I've been playing in the sun. Also, my laptop bit the dust. Thus, the lack in posts. I'm trying to get back into my blogging routine. We'll see how it goes. ;)

I taught a wonderful lesson with one of my really fun clients last night. She has a wonderful little gelding that I ride a few times a week. They are both on the green side but willing to learn. We were working to prepare for a show, and I set up cones in the corners of the arena to help work on keeping on the rail and riding correct corners. Sweet little gelding was doing really well with all the corners except one. At this particular corner, he would drop his shoulder and push to the inside of the cone. Every time.  Wonderful client wanted to know why he was spooking in that corner. Helpful railbird commented that it was probably where she was standing or possibly the saddle cover hanging over the rail. While initially it may have been one of those things, what it boiled down to is that the horse didn't want to go into that corner. He wasn't spooking and he wasn't afraid. Without the proper leadership from the saddle, he just didn't have a reason to. Now, I have no idea why he initially didn't want to go into the corner, but after three or four times, he had it in his head he shouldn't have to. So, I encouraged my student to be proactive by lifting the shoulder ahead of time and focusing her energy on riding through the corner rather than fighting about the cone. Viola!! He went right through.

As riders, we have a natural tendency to want to explain and rationalize what is happening with our horses. Especially when something goes wrong. Putting a label on it, or assigning it a reason or cause makes us feel better. The problem with this is that horses don't always have a reason for what they do; or, if our thought process isn't like the horse's, we may assign the wrong reason to the behavior. Horses live in the moment. They are not hatching plans to make our rides more difficult. They are not devious.What horses are is incredibly sensitive. If something is bothering you, it will bother them. By putting a lot of thought into the problem you are having, that corner, this movement, or that transition, you are only telling the horse that there is something to be concerned about.

If we constantly excuse our horses inappropriate behavior because there was something hanging on the rail, he doesn't like that horse, the door was open instead of closed etc, we make it ok. By putting a name on it, and allowing the horse to behave in a way they shouldn't because of that, we have given our horse the opportunity to make decisions. Now, I don't know about you, but, when I'm in the saddle, I want to be making the decisions. So, when I'm riding and the horse pulls a move that's out of line, I make sure that I was not giving a confusing message, that there's nothing the horse should be legitimately concerned about, and then I carry on with whatever I wanted in the first place. I may adjust my strategy to make the exercise more clear to the horse, but I don't spend a lot of time figuring out what may have bothered sweet Fluffy. I don't even care! I want to continue to make progress with the horse listening to me, so I'm not going to spend a lot of time focusing on a little hiccup. Often times, when we fall into a pattern with our horse, we are anticipating the problem and creating tension in the horse. It's hard, but when something unplanned happens, you need to brush it off and move on. Fixating and wondering if it will happen again is almost a sure guarantee that it will. Ensuring that your horse's attention is focused on you and being proactive to stop problems before they turn into a habit will go a long way in eliminating unwanted behavior.

Saturday, May 26

Tack Addict Shopping Guide v. 4

Let the sporadic flood of blog posts commence! I'm in a writing mood these days, but the sun is shining. We'll see what wins out over the weekend ;) I just got a beautiful new bridle in the mail the other day...

It's really really really nice. You can buy one just like it here. This bridle has nice padding, nice quality leather, and roller buckles in all the right places. The stitching is neat and tight, and the leather is so soft and supple right outta the box. But the best part of this bridle is the price tag.... $50! Schneiders has quite a few options from the Premier brand, and, next time I'm in the market for a bridle, these are the ones I'll be buying. I have yet to actually use the bridle, so we'll see how it works at a later date, but it sure LOOKS nice :)

It's about time...

Before we get started, just wanted to say "Hey There" to all eight of my followers! Thanks for sticking with me through my sporadic spells of inspiration. I'll hit my rhythm one of  these days ;)

Recently, the TWH world has been in the spotlight. If you read my blog because you like me and not horses (Hi, Mom?), the short version is that there's a very popular type of show horse called the "Big Lick" Tennessee Walker , and the only way to get them to do what they do is by torturing and eventually crippling them.  See the ABC video and article for more info.

Here is A LOT of footage of the Big Lick walkers in action. Don't they kinda look like aliens? Two of the reasons people are outraged by the practices of Big Lick trainers are action devices and soring. Because of all the "civilian" attention this case is getting, I think it's about time we revisit a discipline that has been called out for completely unhealthy fads in the show ring, but has still not cleaned up its act. Western Pleasure has allowed ridiculous training and fads to win in the show ring, and while the style may change, the ribbons still encourage others to follow whatever is the winning style. Why would anyone going for a ride out in the pastures want their horse cantering with such a hook in his body that it's more of a crabwalk? Or is showing such a popular activity now that people breed show horses that need not even resemble what would actually be put to use in the real world? So, we are going to look at the similarities between Big Lick and Western Pleasure. Maybe people will get mad about this too!

Let's do a little comparison between these two and see what we can see

Big Lick has Soring. Trainers cover the lower leg with caustic chemicals, like deisel, and then they wrap the legs with saran wrap to make sure the chemicals get the skin good and tender. Then they put chains on the tenderized skin, which will repeatedly smack them as they move and, therefore, "encourage" their flashy gait. They also use huge platform shoes called stacks. These are extremely heavy and can warp the foot. Check out this post from a farrier about stacks on FuglyBlog if you'd like more information.

This video shows a few of the Western Pleasure problems that compare to soring. One is the "yank incessantly on the mouth while spurring" training method. This video got nearly unbearable at the two and a half minute mark. My goodness! While she's not necessarily pulling hard, it's almost incessant. That type of continuous nagging with the bit can do permanent damage to the tongue, not to mention make the whole mouth very sore. This gal seems to be fairly quiet with her spurs, but she's trying to get you to buy her how-to video. Maybe she's saving some of the really good tips for people who will shell out the cash? Some other methods to encourage the WP gaits are huge bits, draw reins, martingales, and hock hobbles. While these methods seem a little more humane than the TWH folks, many of these methods cause lasting damage to the horse and most do not remain sound.  

Hmm.. both disciplines drastically change their horse's gait in a way that actually causes harm??

Moving on...

This is a winning TWH Tail

This high tail set is sometimes achieved by "nicking" the tail, which is the nice name for slicing a tendon on the underside of the tail so that it can be held higher and look better(?!) in the show ring. They also strap them into these tail set contraptions to help the tail look more awesome. 
Sidenote: I have no experience with the above horse, and have no idea if that tail was nicked.. or set... or won anything for that matter.

Doesn't that look comfy for them to curl up in their stall with? 

This is a winning WP tail

Because stock horses have big ol' booties, fake tails have become very popular to hide the fact that many stock horses grow pathetically thin tails, and thus they balance the appearance of the horse. Why this matters, who knows? Fashion is an unruly beast! But the next tail shocker is the fact that it is fairly common for pleasure horses to have their tails blocked. The tail is injected with a chemical to temporarily "partially" paralyze it.  I've heard one reason for doing this was to stop the horse from carrying their tail away from their body. Apparently using their whole spine to move is out of fashion this year. Another added bonus is that these horses lose their ability to swish their tail when they are spurred by their rider.  This fad is not without censequence, if the injection site gets infected or the horse has a bad reaction for any number of reasons, they could die. More commonly, the effects may not wear off, the horse may lose hair at the head of the tail, or it may develop a kink in the dock.  Here is a photo of the aftermath of tail blocking gone wrong. 

I bet that cost more than it was worth....

Looks like both of these disciplines are willing to go to extreme measures to "improve" their horses' appearance. 

Here is a video of a class of 4 year olds at the Celebration last year. I think the canter is the most awkward one, but they all look like a strain on the horse.  The structures of the leg were not designed for the additional work of squatting down behind and carrying bricks on their feet in front like these horses are. 

Here is a video from a class at the 2011 AQHYA World Show. In my opinion, these horses don't look much more comfortable than the walkers. The main horse in this video looks like her booty hurts to me. 

As we've just seen, both of these disciplines promote gaits that are unnatural and affect the horses' long term soundness. 

While I know there is always a range of people involved in every discipline, nobody can deny that Big Lick and Western Pleasure have earned every bit of their terrible reputations. There is a major difference between these two disciplines that I should mention. While I feel there are people who actually care about horses in the WP industry, no horse loving person could ever do what the Big Lick weirdos do to theirs. Let's raise awareness people! Education is power and all that. 

Friday, May 4

Tack Addict Shopping Guide v. 3

For this installment, I'm showcasing not just a single product, but a whole line of great products!

Taken from the Thinline website: What makes ThinLine unique is its technology. ThinLine is an open-cell foam which moves shock, weight, and heat laterally across the pad.

These pads are great for absorbing shock, which makes the ride more comfy for us up in the saddle too, and are also reported to help saddles stay in place better. I've seen great results with my horses. s

What I love about the Thinline products is their great shock absorbing ability coupled with total ease of use. The rubbery material is super easy to wipe clean, and this stuff is built to last. I went through several pairs of smb's for my gelding who interferes while being ridden. 

Buying a pair of these awesome open front boots has saved me a ton of money in the long run. My gelding also loves them because they don't get as hot and itchy as his support boots did. 

I also have one of these awesome "saddle fitter" pads. 

The pockets allow you to add shims if you need a little more padding in a certain area. The fleece and construction on this bad boy are impressive. I feel I'll probably be using this pad for many years to come! 

Overall, my only complaint about the Thinline products is the price. They are definitely a little pricey, but with some good shopping, I've been able to find some great bargains! 

Wednesday, May 2

Training Spirit

This handsome young fellow is Spirit. He's a 5 year old TB that I have in for training. His owner plans to use him for trials, and my job is to make sure he's a perfect gentleman. He's very special to me because he was the first horse I started professionally. I put 90 days on him 2 years ago, and then he went home to grow up for a while. This photo is him on his first day back in training. 

Spirit has always been a pretty easy going fellow. Uncharacteristic of his breed, his biggest hurdle was creating forward energy. He would rather stand around for pets and cookies. Our re-introduction to riding went off without a hitch. He picked up the work routine again like he had never left the farm. BUT, he has been such a slug. Getting him to pick up a walk rather than a mosey was a project. He also spooks at the poles in the corner, and the corner with the mailbox, and when cars pull into the parking lot.

Needless to say, I was a little apprehensive about our first trail ride last weekend. After all, I'd only been riding him for 2 weeks (6 rides), and we were still having a lot of problems. It's not that he was terribly naughty in the arena, but he wasn't giving me a lot of confidence in his level headedness either. I didn't really have a choice, so I sucked it up and made my plans. I brought a whip in case of balking, two good horse companions to sandwich us in safety, and a good rope halter and lead in case we needed to do some ground work out on the trail.

We loaded up the horses on a pleasant Sunday afternoon and headed to the trailhead. This particular one only has parking on a wide shoulder of a fairly busy road, but that didn't bother anyone. Hallelujah!

Here he is, waiting patiently :)

As we set out, I was mentally prepared for a torturous battle in the woods, but boy was I in for a suprise. He. Was. Perfect. Not one jiggy step, not one spook, or even a refusal. He went up, over, and through everything I asked him to. Although, he did skirt the edges of puddles and mud in order to keep his little hoofies clean. The only time I dismounted was to go over/under a fallen tree that came up almost to his chest with a low hanging branch overhead. He even turned and approached the large, barking dog that we encountered. 

Sandwiched in between the more seasoned horses. 

We ended up riding for about two hours, and a great time was had by all! I think I've found Spirit's calling. Now just to adjust our arena rides for more success and less arguement. I think we'll spend more time working with obstacles and less time worrying if his circles are round and supple. 

Guapo, one of our trail riding companions, is ready to head home and eat dinner!

Monday, April 30

Somebody, please explain...

... why in the heck you need would ever need to put this on a horse's head?!

This device is called a Horsewyse Hackamore. The patent for this contraption is held by Patrick Wyse. Although, it is not mentioned or pictured anywhere on his website. It's actually pretty difficult to find anything further about. I wonder if they maybe.. I dunno... caused horses to flip over and kill people? The combination of extreme leverage from the hackamore and a tie down spells T-R-O-U-B-L-E!

Thursday, April 12

Tack Addict Shopping Guide v. 2

It's time for another installment for all you tack addicts like me. For today's post, I'd like to show you one of my favorite bits. It's the Professional's Choice Bob Avila signature snaffle.

This bit's appealing in several ways. First off, it won't break the bank at right around $50. It's got copper inlay in the mouthpiece and it's little wide, so it doesn't have the pinching problem I've seen with a lot of loose rings; I still use bit guards just in case though. I ride just about every horse in this bit, and I love the feel. It's got heavier rings... although not the super heavy weighted kind. It's just heavy enough to give it a nice substantial feel that helps the horses pick it up and hold it, which gives you a connected feel even on a loose rein.

Monday, April 9

Pet Peeve: Mouthy Horses

It's time for another installment of pet peeves! On the agenda to discuss today is mouthy horses. Horses are curious critters, and, lacking hands, they use their prehensile lips for checking things out. Youngsters usually learn not to put their mouth on things during "work time" in the course of their early trianing, as it can lead to a lot of trouble in the future. Horses who grow accustomed to putting their mouth on things (including chewing, lipping, touching, etc) can grab the shank of a bit and flip themself over, pull down something and spook themself, damage other people's equipment and the list goes on and on.

So, what's the deal with owners who let their horses put their mouth on anything and everything they encounter? Often times, when asked about their horse's behavior, the owner will make excuses like, "Oh, fluffy just has to check everything out to make sure it's ok." or "I just want to let him be a horse." Listen here folks, your horse has all day and night when you're not working him to check things out and be a horse. When I have my horse out, I want him paying attention to me. Not searching for things he can "check out". In my opinion, there's a big difference between letting your horse check out something and letting them look for things to play with. When I expect my horse to interact with something, they are allowed to touch it with their nose as part of their safety check, but they are never ever under any circumstances to put any object in their mouth. It's a safety hazard, and, in my opinion, shows an overall lack of discipline. When I have my horses out, they should be paying attention to what I am doing so that they don't miss a cue. If their attention is split between me and their search for entertainment, we are not going to have very good communication with one another.

Ultimately, like most of my pet peeves, it comes down to a safety issue. A horse who is constantly putting items in his mouth is eventually going to cause trouble. Should the unthinkable happen and Fluffy ends up for sale, how will prospective buyers feel about a horse with an oral fixation? Are you setting your horse up for long term success? Or avoiding a training issue?

Wednesday, April 4

Writer's Block

So, I have a bunch of half finished posts... that just refuse to let me finish them all the way. So while I fight off this writer's block junk... here are some links to some of my favorite reads...

Sustainable Dressage has both great explanations and illustrations of collection and the horse's balance in general. If you like what you see, I also recommend checking out the tack section.

Mugwump Chronicles Sonita stories are both true and riveting. Mugs also writes about training and other general horsey topics from a western trainer's point of view.

Dressage Curmudgeon (pg 14 language on occasion) writes about buying a baby and turning her into a dressage horse.

These should keep you entertained for a while until I get my act together ;) If you have any favorites for me to check out link to them in the comments!

Tuesday, March 20

Trail Rides

This time of year, as the weather starts to improve (she states optimistically), I start getting pestered to take people out on some trail rides. Those of you readers who know me in person know that I would rather clean sheaths all day than go on a trail ride. I have a stock answer that generally gets me off the hook with people. It goes something like this:
Trail riding presents a lot of uncontrolled risk, and it's not relaxing for me to feel responsible for everyone and their horses' lives.

But... that's not entirely the truth. The other reason I don't want to go on trail rides is more along these lines:
Riding through the woods looking at trees is BORING!!!





I would so much rather putter around in an arena than meander in the wilderness. Trail riding has no challenge, and therefore I think it's awful. There, I said it. Anyone agree with me?

Tuesday, March 6

Trusting and Letting Go

As a riding instructor, part of my job is having faith in my students and letting them step out and do things independantly. I have always found this pretty easy to do,as I tend to have a large amount of faith in my students ability to rise to the occasion. I have seen pairs succeed that I was told would be a total disaster. I have seen these students continue on with those same horses and succeed in areas I would not have imagined possible. But for some reason, it's been a struggle to let my horses do the same.

A large part of my teenage years was spent riding the unstarted horse I recieved for my 15th birthday. I learned tons about training, and I really enjoyed watching my silly 2 year old transform into a steady eddy school horse and 4H State Fair Competitor. Sadly, though, I had a hole in my riding education. I went from a pretty uneducated backyard rider to training. I learned how to hold my horse together, how to manage the direction of his feet, and keep him supple and forward. But I didn't learn to let him go. I found security in my reins, which at times I really needed! So now, a few years down the road, I'm working on filling in that gap. For a while, my training philosophy was based on a lot of input, I wanted every step to be planned and executed the way I wanted it. Now, I'm working on treating my horses like partners. I want to help them perform the movements I ask for but allow them to start taking more responsibility for their actions. This means sometimes I go faster than I want, or in a less than perfect bend, and sometimes not even the direction I was planning; but these are all learning opportunities. I'm able to encourage my horses to be more willing and independant by not being afraid of their mistakes. I'm raising my expectations of my horses,  and it's cool the way they rise to the occasion. It's my challenge to be clear in what I want and to stay out of their way. It's their responsibility to try to the best of their ability.

It's definitely been a challenge, and I know this isn't the last hole I'll have to fill. The rewards are worth it. I'm having fun letting my horses do their thing, and I'm learning a lot from them.

Thursday, March 1

Tack Addict Shopping Guide

Those of you who know me in real life know I have an *ahem cough cough* affection for tack. I am indeed a tack addict. They say the first step is admitting you have a problem, but they never said you have to go beyond that! Good old "they" ;) So, I'm going to be sharing with you guys some of my favorite tack items... there will even be helpful links if you'd like to pick some up for yourself!

For this first feature, I'm going to share what I think may be the best tack invention ever. The simplicity and usefullness makes me wonder why these do not come standard on every set of western reins.

You can purchase these from Buckaroo Leather for around $12!
If you're like me, you like the option of easily removing your reins without having to untie the waterloops. I tried snaps for a while, but eventually I decided I wasn't crazy about the way they jingled and rattled while I was riding (not to mention the risk of breaking or coming undone). I've also tried quite a few of the quick change style ends, but these puppies are by far my favorite!

Tuesday, February 28

Anxiety: The Sneaky Monster

I have worked with a lot of students in the past who suffer from anxiety, and I struggle with anxiety myself. It's a tricky thing, because frequently fear and worry are based on completely logical issues. Riding horses is crazy! They are giant scaredy cats! But, for some reason, most of us are determined to overcome our fear and ride. There are several manifestations of anxiety that I see. A specific fear due to prior experience- which I find the hardest, but most straight forward to deal with. A general fear that things will go terribly wrong. And, as in my own case, a general uneasiness not necessarily related to horses, but detrimental to riding nonetheless. I find the more centered and focused I am before I get in the saddle, the better I am able to shut down the anxiety and have a great ride. That means some days I choose not to ride. On days when I don't feel I can do justice to my horse from his back, I like to choose an activity that gets both of us some exercise. It's much easier to settle and focus on a high anxiety day if I am in motion alongside my horse. I like to do showmanship or work on lunging on these days. Ground activities have the added benefit of increasing control on the ground, and they increase my confidence in my horse. A student sent me a great link about anxiety while riding, and I think it's worth sharing.

How do you deal with fear in the saddle? 

Saturday, February 18

Summer Camp Chronicles Part I

Riding at summer camps was a big part of my early riding experience. As early as the age of 7, I was beebopping around on camp horses having the time of my life. While this wasn't a terribly educational portion of my riding carreer, it gave me lots of saddle time, confidence, and an appreciation for these hardworking saints. Someday, I'll write about those wonderful camp experiences, but today, I'm going to write about one of the most miserable weeks of my life.

It all started with a brochure I picked up at a local tack store. The camp was located in Canada, about an hour away from one of our favorite ski resorts. And it was a jumping camp.  Up to this point I had ridden almost exclusively western, but I reeeeeeally wanted to try jumping. I figured this was the easiest way to get some good experience under my belt.While I was a year older than the listed maximum age for the camp, I was allowed to enroll. I worked my butt off in my riding lessons getting in shape to jump, and when summer rolled around, I knew I was ready to jump sweet jumps.

The camp was about a 10 hour drive from home, but it just so happened some friends were taking a long summer vacation at the ski resort nearby. She offered to pick me up from the airport and drop me off at camp. My dad had faxed all the paperwork in advance so there wouldn't be any problems. We thought.
When I arrived, the gal asked for my paperwork. And wanted a parent to sign forms. She almost didn't take me... I was so nervous. Looking back, that may have been a blessing in disguise. Over the course of the week I was accused of sneaking into the 14 year old boy's tent among a litany of other silly charges that I had nothing to do with. But this isn't a blog about crappy camp counselors.. let's get back to the horses. I was assigned a plump little appy mare with no mane or tail to speak of. She was cute and reminded me of a horse at home... we hit it off pretty well. Sadly, the camp owner was not impressed. The very first day, she stuck me in the beginner group, many of these students couldn't even steer. Her reasoning? Because I was "just a western rider". After the first day I was moved into a more advanced group, and we immediately started off jumping 2'3'". This camp did not focus so much on teaching you what you were doing as simply surviving. Luckily, I didn't scare easy. Even after watching lots of refusals and runouts, it was my turn.... the feeling of just riding up to a jump and knowing my horse was going to sail over built my confidence, even though I had no idea what I was doing.

Looking back now, I realize how sad those poor horses must have been. Many had physical issues- I saw stringhalt, eye issues, and enough lameness to make you shake your head. I couldn't pull the noseband tight enough to pass tack check, and I'm quite sure my little close contact saddle with a plain pad didn't do any favors for my saintly appy's back. I did learn a few things about jumping... mostly how to stay out of a good horse's way. At the end of the week show for the parents,  the "just a western rider" won the equitation class. I'll never go back there, but I never want to forget my terrible week at camp.

Friday, February 10

This entry brought to you by Facebook

I've been a little uninspired lately as far as topics for blogs, so I reached out to my wonderful facebook friends for a little inspiration. Here are the things they wanted to hear about!

Grant wanted to know how long it takes for a horse to go from conception to rideable. It's a straightforward question, but the answer isn't quite as simple. The gestation period for a horse is 11 months, nobody argues this one. The time from birth that it is ok to ride them is another story. The average horse person will tell you two and a half to three years is old enough to start their riding career. There are some folks out there who start their horses at 16-18 months so that they are ready to show as a 2 year old. Racehorses all turn a year older on January 1. If they were born late in the year, they may be racing as a 2 year old much MUCH younger. Then there's the folks on the other side of the fence who say a horse shouldn't be ridden until their skeleton is fully mature, around 6 years old. If you are interested in more information on the horse's skeleton, Dr. Deb Bennett has a great article on her website. Now since this is my blog, here's my opinion. I think if you wait until a horse is 6 years old to start them, they have spent too much time not working for a living. I like to do lots of groundwork when they are still small and impressionable, around 2. I want them nice and quiet and to get them going under saddle. Then a break until they are after 3 to start their "real" training. Each horse is an individual and their physical and mental maturity should always be taken into account before doing any type of training.

Jamison wanted to know how many inches are in a hand, which is how we express a horse's height. There are 4 inches in a hand. Hand is abbreviated hh, and the inches over and above a hand are placed after the decimal. So a horse who is 15 hands and 2 inches would be 15.2hh. Many folks misunderstand the use of the decimal and would list this horse as 15.5hh, but that would not be correct.

Kelsey wanted to know if Mr. Ed could really talk. According to Wikipedia they used a thread across his lip to encourage him to "talk", but, being a very smart boy, quickly learned to watch the actor and start talking when his costar had finished a line.

And.. I found this video on youtube. Enjoy. Or marvel. Or wonder. Or.. whatever, I guess. ;)

Tuesday, February 7

Great Expectations

What goes through your mind while you're riding? If you're like many of my students and clients, you are focused on not letting things go wrong. "I hope Spooky McJumpypants doesn't freak out in the corner" "I hope Ol' Twobyfour doesn't brace through this transition" "Hopefully Mexican Jumping Beans isn't going to buck today"  This kind of thinking can be a self defeating prophecy. It's amazing how in tune our horses are to our mental state of being. They're just trotting along or whathaveyou, when they feel your body tense as you think about where they might buck/spook/swerve/brace or otherwise booger around. So your horse is thinking, "Well, shoot! Miss Rider Lady is really nervous about something that's coming up, I should be too!" We unintentionally clutter the horse's mind and make it more difficult for them to focus on the job at hand.

I was watching a boarder at my barn ride her beautiful black mare the other night. As they were going around I heard her say something along the lines of "stop bracing" to her horse... who continued to brace. Even though she was riding the horse in a way to correct the error, the horse continued leaning on the reins. When she changed her tune and asked the horse to be soft, the change was almost instantaneous.

Next time  you ride, try it. Make a note of the negative thoughts that you have, and see what happens if you turn them around into a positive. It's not a magic trick, your horse won't suddenly learn how to do flying changes; and we can't change our horse's natural way of going or temperment. However, it's amazing how well a horse will work when we get out of their way.

Tuesday, January 31

Compliant vs Trained

What is the definition of a trained horse? To me, a well trained horse will do his job for any level rider or handler capable of asking for it. He needs to know what the job is and perform it when asked. The rider shouldn't have to do a lot of holding, tickling, squeezing, begging, clucking, or smacking.
How well trained is your horse? Are you the only one who can get him to accomplish certain things? If the average user (with an appropriate skill level for your horse) can't get close to the same performance you can from your horse, you may be guilty of just getting him to do things rather than training.

I've been thinking a lot lately about how we teach our horses to do things. Because of our impatient nature, it's easy to get ahead of the program and push to the more advanced (more fun!) steps. But what does this do to our horse? If they are not confident with each increasingly difficult step, they will never be independant in it. If we let our impatience get in the way of our training, we really shoot ourself in the foot. Because as each stage comes along we are holding, helping, and asking our horse more and more. This limits us, because we can only help so much. If we want our horse to improve, we have to train their mind and body to accomplish the task when we ask for it.. not when we manipulate their body into doing it.  It's easy to just get-them-to do things rather than teaching them how to accomplish them in response to a cue.

When you ride  next, take the time to pay attention to your horse. Do you get responses to your cues? Or is getting advanced maneuvers more like trying to load a great dane into a lifted pickup? If the latter is the case, maybe it's time to slow down and go back to basics. Find the holes in your horses training. Break each maneuver down to it's most basic element and build up from there only as fast as your horse can go. Do not move onto the next step until your horse can reliably respond to the cue for the step you are currently on. If you are interested in a detailed example, Please visit this page, where he talks about getting control of the hindquarters.

Thursday, January 26

Am I Cheating?

I was going to write a post about the benefits of using long and low, and how riding in this posture helps prepare a horse for collection; but I found this video on youtube. It's so good. Please, watch it. Then we should talk about it in the comments. :)

Tuesday, January 24

We ALL Need an Attitude Adjustment Sometimes

You know those days at the barn where your horse is happy to see you, and you are happy to see your horse. You have a great ride, and as you head back to put your horse away a big rainbow appears in the sky and birds fly up and land on your shoulder and sing you a beautiful bird song. Oh wait, that’s starting to sound a little like a Disney cartoon… but you know what I’m talking about. Why don’t we have that all the time?
It’s easy to fall into the trap of blaming our horses for a bad ride, but is this really fair? Let’s pick up the boss analogy again. A good boss only gives their employee tasks that they are capable of completing, gives the support the employee needs to finish the task, and acknowledges the accomplishment when the job is completed. How often are we bad bosses when we ride? Do we set our horses up for success, support them, and reward when they get it? Or do we let our expectations or memories from a previous ride clutter our mind and give our horse mixed signals? It’s easy to do, and the habit is hard to break. “He always spooks there” “You can’t do that to him from his off side” “He doesn’t do XXX” How many times have you said something like this about your horse?  How much of this behavior is human driven rather than horse driven?
When we ride our horses, a cluttered mind can really affect their performance. Horses, unlike humans, operate in the moment. They don’t have a master game plan or set of goals when you pull them out of their paddock. One minute they were eating or sniffing poo or whathaveyou and, the next, you came to catch them for a ride. We humans are great at making plans and goals, but where we fall short is helping the horse to clearly understand and accomplish them. We can inadvertently muddle our signals with tension in our body or mind. Our horses are so incredibly sensitive they can pick up on whatever physical or mental baggage we brought to the barn.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that if we just do it right then our horses will magically turn into the most obedient, cooperative critter in the world. They are still big prey animals with a mind and personality of their own. Certain individuals will always be more cooperative and pliable than others. Sometimes they ignore our wonderful leadership, but if we can stay consistent, clear, and patient they will usually come around to our way of thinking… eventually.
 I find, when I’m  not getting the response I want from  the horse, it helps to stop and take a little break; sometimes I let the horse stand and air up or walk on a loose rein. I don’t come back to the exercise until we have both calmed down, and I have figured out a simpler step to ask the horse for. By then, we are usually on the same page and ready to get back to work.
Lately, I’ve been searching out times to ride when the arena is empty. I leave the radio off, put my phone on the rail, and really focus on the ride at hand.  I want to be able to read my horse and give him the right workout for where he is at that day. It’s a struggle. It’s so easy to become distracted or frustrated, but the results speak for themselves. I’ve had some of the best rides ever in my life over the last couple of months. It’s exciting and makes my brain hurt at the same time.

Tuesday, January 17

Things that make you go.... HUH??

I've been wanting to do a post on this topic, but have been scouring the internet in an attempt to find a "pro" argument that would explain why it's not as bad as it looks.... I still haven't found one. Today's topic is the "Mexican Dancing Horse".

I figured this was a traditional performance, and as such maybe I had it misunderstood. However, from what I have read, this is a fairly recent trend, only becoming popular over the last 30 years. Possibly a copycat of dressage's beautiful piaffe, then? For a horse to perform piaffe correctly, they should appear to be trotting in place. In order to do this, they must build up the muscles over a long period of training to learn how to balance themselves and keep rythm and relaxation.  Find more info on piaffe here. It looks a little something like this:

Notice how the horse is lowering down in back, maintaining tempo and impulsion (for the most part- he does lose his hind end just a bit at one point), and is relaxed and quiet in his work? Now let's compare that to this training video of the horse we saw in the first video. Make a note of the way his hind end is popping up. You can also see the chains used to help exaggerate his leg action- the ends are left long to swing up and pop them in the legs to get them to snap up quicker and higher. 

Now I'm not an expert here, but that horse doesn't seem to happy and relaxed in his work to me. This horse dancing business, like any other equine sport, surely has it's good eggs and bad. I'm sure there are trainers out there who take the time to develop their horses properly, but the "tie them up and smack 'em till they do it" method seems to be much more prevalent. You can visit this page for some further discussion as well as another video showing multiple horses in action. 

Monday, January 9

How NOT to Advertise: Leopard Friesian Stallion

I stumbled across this video a few days ago on youtube, and I wanted to share with you guys. This video pretty clearly illustrates how you should NOT advertise a stallion. Enjoy the show!

Let's start with the basic qualifications for breeding to a stallion. We want to make sure they have good conformation, temperament, and movement. These are the bare minimums! Generally we would like to see that they have been successful at something, but that's not important to everyone. It's also helpful when shopping online to mention the basics of height, weight, and life experience. They call this a "Leopard Friesian Stallion" but he's really just a grade appy friesian cross. Sure, you might get a spotty baby from him, but it's hard to tell what else you might get. Certainly not something you can register!

Let's talk about the good from this video: rider and horse both appear to be well groomed and have on appropriate equipment for the activity going on. That's about it.

Now let's talk about the bad! Starting with the definition of video shall we? Generally, when posting a video, one posts video footage... not just photos. Clearly these shots were taken the same day, would it have killed them to grab a video camera too? This is important for someone who may be thinking of breeding to this horse without actually being able to see him in person. You can catch a photo of almost any horse looking beautiful,  but video doesn't lie. So big FAIL in the movement department. Temperamnet is a crap shoot, although in one photo, you see the rider is quite obviously having trouble making his ride look easy (in the open field, cattywompus hands, and his legs always look like they're working waaay too hard), and in one of the side views you can see how far forward his saddle has slipped. This is either due to poor conformation/saddle fit OR (as I've seen on many a kids pony) this guy has pulled himself up onto the horses neck just trying to keep the beast under control. We'll never know, though, because the two measly conformation shots themselves are at a poor angle, and the background makes it difficult to see him.

What do I see in this video? A barely green broke, grade stallion who was bred out of two completely different types of horses. He has a weak hindend, possibly downhill build, and a ridiculously upright neck. Needless to say, I won't be breeding to him under any circumstance.... even if I might get a Sooper Speshul Krazy Kolored baby!

Wednesday, January 4

Feelin' the pressure!

Riding and training horses boils down to one major element. Pressure. How successful we are with horses depends on how we apply this pressure- the intensity, timing, and release. Because horses don't speak our language (and it's a good thing or I'd be out of a job) we have to use pressure to help them figure out what we are asking. We release when they have completed what we ask. When a horse is just learning, we release when they start heading in the right direction. A turn, for example, may start with the horse just tipping their nose in the direction we are signaling with the rein. If we stop here, they know they are on the right track. We can ask for a little more next time and keep the experience positive for all. This is hard for humans because we are so goal oriented and focused. It's no problem for us to work for an hour trying to get that perfect circle, but we have to take our horse into consideration. They have no idea what we want, and can only take their cues from our responses to their actions. If every time they try we are pushing for a little bit more... it's not a very good incentive for them to try at all. 

Now let's try a human world analogy. Imagine you just landed a new job in a new country where you don't speak the language. You walk into your cubicle in the new office, and on the desk is a stack of paperwork. You're not sure what it all is or how to complete it, so you sit down and wait. Your boss comes in, and points at a mysterious machine in the corner, but he doesn't speak english and can't explain what to do. You've never seen anything like it before. How would you react? Personally, I'd continue to just sit there and not do anything. Because I don't know what he wants me to do or how to do it, I would wait for him to give me better directions. I know he wants something with the machine, though, so we are having some sort of communication. Unless he changes his tactic, I'm probably not going to get the lesson. Now Mister Boss Man has two options: he can continue pointing at the machine and hope I get it, or he can be more creative with his pointing. If he continues pointing (maybe over and over again and more dramatically now) you will probably begin feeling a little stressed. He obviously wants you do to something.. NOW! So you might start taking guesses, examining the machine for a button or a sticker with directions, but ultimately, you are probably going to need more help. So, let's see what happens if he follows option number two. If he gets more creative maybe he will start by pointing at the on button on the machine, then to a piece of paper on the desk, and finally at the slot on top of the machine. If you seem doubtful maybe he will point at the paper and then down into the slot. "Oh, I'm supposed to stick it in there?" you'll think to yourself. You may still be a little unsure. Maybe you make a motion like you're putting the paper in the machine. He smiles and gives a big thumbs up- you figured it out!

Every time we ride or handle any horse, we are Mister Boss Man. We use pressure to communicate, but we have to make sure that our horses are understanding the message. It's easy to get upset that a horse isn't responding the way we want, but when we remember that they may not know what it is we're asking for, it's easier to take a deep breath and try again. The best bet with a horse is to make the steps very very small and close together. For a human looking at the end result, it can get really tedious; but the difference in the end result speaks for itself. 

Monday, January 2

Before it seems totally out of place...

I guess I could introduce myself and a few of the people/ponies I will end up talking about.

This is me and my four (4?!?!) horses. I started riding with some regularity at 7 years of age. I attended local horse camps and took group lessons for several years. In my early teen years I rode with a great horseman and friend named Pastor Joe. He kept a few horses around for fun, and we team penned, trail rode, and did some reining. It was all a lot of fun, but I wasn't getting a ton of riding education at this point. I got my first horse for my fifteen birthday; Mack was a coming three year old quarter horse. Pastor Joe and his son got him started for me and then turned over the reins to me,  and that's when I realized I was totally out of my depth! I started taking lessons at a local barn with a great instructor named Kristal. I was able to rapidly improve my riding with regular lessons, and I also really enjoyed learning how to train my horse. When I turned eighteen, Kristal offered me a job teaching lessons. I participated in an instructor training course, and I went through CHA certification. That pretty much brings us up to now. I've been teaching for five years, and I'm now focusing on developing my training skills. I teach about 20 students on a weekly basis, and my favorites are 4-H kids :)

And now for the ponies! On the far left is Trip. He's an 8yo AQHA gelding. I've owned him since July, and he's a retired roper. He's going to be competing in 4-H this year, and I'm participating in a cattle sorting series with him this winter. Next in is Duke, my 11yo paint gelding. He's a really versatile guy who enjoys trails, performance, and cattle work. He's leased by one of my adult students, and I hope someday soon she'll be able to buy him. The handsome fella with the blue halter is Jasper. In December of 2010, he was rescued from the Enumclaw Sales Pavilion. His stall card read "6 year old gelding, has bucking problem". YIKES! But a good friend of mine saw the good in him and brought him home. He came to live with me in September to compete in 4-H and act as one of our school horses in the lesson program. He really excels in dressage, although with some work I think he'll be a great all around guy. Last but not least, Cricket is that cutie in the red halter. He's an 11yo POA. He's a busy boy and will be showing in 4-H with 2 riders this year. He loves to jump, but also participates in performance, dressage, and gaming. When he's not busy preparing for the show season, he also gives a few lessons when we need a fill in. 

There's a lot more folks in this cast of characters, but I really needed to use this picture up before July when the santa hats would be too silly ;)