Thursday, November 3, 2011

Project Pony Swap - Mounted Finale, or I'm Glad My Horses Potty Under Saddle

The Finale was not any great, grand event.  In fact, it was actually quite dismal, so I asked for a re-ride (a little IEA humor, there).  The initial "Final Ride" was pretty terrible.  There were some okay moments, but I finally had to settle for "good enough."  I dismount, take Squeaks back to the barn, and the first thing he does once in the wash rack?  He pees, and he poops.  Fine.  I can't ride so well when I'm doing the pee-pee dance inside, either... but it did make me very glad that my horses have no compunctions about using the bathroom when under saddle.
On Saturday evening, we tried again.  Thankfully, this time Tiki did not have to pee, so the ride went much better.  The focus was pretty much the same as it had been in past rides - creating the same bend through the entire body,  asking him to carry himself, and minimize that damn head tilting.  While I never felt like we achieved that same great trot we had in our second ride, I *did* get to experience the newest thing Susan and Jen had worked on: a new phrase from Gigi about "cantering in a teacup," and this really cool thing where the horse collects when the rider closes the knee.  A redheaded Thoroughbred is the perfect horse for that sort of thing!  Sure enough, at the canter, I closed my knee, and Tiki sat down, really collecting himself.  It was very cool.

I didn't push for much more after the canter - just a little bit more trot and then cooling down.  Tiki's attendance was required the following day at an IEA show, so I didn't want to make him work *too* hard - just hard enough to be a good babysitter! =P

The last part of Project Pony Swap will be to give each other lessons on our own horses.  Not quite sure when we'll be able to work that one out.

And as a complete aside: getting up before 4AM absolutely sucks.   

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Project Pony Swap: Day Three

I'm either brave or stupid - I haven't quite figured out which - but sometimes, you just gotta do what you gotta do.
Last night was my third ride on Tiki for Project Pony Swap.  I had just ridden Sparky - who was very good - in his Duo bit, so his "bad boy" copper-rolly-ball pacifier had just been removed from his bridle.  And Tiki's bridle was bitless.  And Honorary Big Sister Jen had mentioned that she sometime wanted to try Sparky's "bad boy" copper-rolly-ball pacifier on Tiki.  No time like the present!  And, well, I didn't really want to ride in the dressage saddle last night, either.  At least I'm somewhat honest about my motives.

So I rode Tiki in Honorary Big Sister Jen's jump saddle and Sparky's bit.  And it was the worst ride I've ever had on Tiki - not that I've really had that many.  As I was getting Tiki ready, he seemed fresh and a bit pissy.  Well, when it's suddenly 45 degrees and windy, I can understand the fresh part.  We went up to the arena, and again started with the usual W-T-C on a loose rein.  Immediately, I knew I was in for a tricky ride.  Even on a loose rein, Tiki usually bends relatively correctly around turns.  Not so last night.  I felt like I was riding a sluggish board.  He did seem to like the bit at least somewhat, however - I could hear him playing with  it and sucking on it.

I worked with Tiki for quite a while, trying to gain some semblance of "in front of the leg" and "correct bend."  It improved slightly, but he still just felt tight.  At one point, I got off him and lunged him each direction for a minute to see if he was off.  He seemed fine, but obviously I needed to change my game plan.  So I pulled off the saddle.

Now, like any rider, I have my weaknesses.  But the one thing I do know is that I have a good seat.  I was hoping to use this in two ways: #1) Maybe I could convince Tiki to loosen up by him only feeling a nice, following seat, rather than a saddle that may or may not be in the usual place (Jen typically sets her saddle further forward than I; I tried to get it in the same place, but maybe I didn't); #2) Maybe it would help me stay on!  (Because you know, riding a horse you don't ride that often bareback on a chilly, windy night is so often a good idea).

I remounted and after trotting for a little bit, finally felt like maybe we we getting somewhere.  We never found that same, really nice, swingy trot that we had last week, but at least I wasn't riding a board; we found some bend, but Tiki still didn't think being in front of my leg was a great idea.  Worked on that a bit, and once the trot was decent, I decided to move up into a canter, just to have some positive canter work.  The canter was decent, but certainly not to where I could try any "cantering in a teacup" or magical "closing my knee = collection."  But we did have bend, and we did have acceptance of the bit, so I called it good. 

I didn't want push for too much longer, because my primary goal once I went to bareback was to just finish with something remotely positive.  I had noticed, however, that I could not for the life of me sit up.  One of my favorite off-color expressions (warning: parental guidance suggested; language) is that riders need to have shoulders like a princess and hips like a whore.  There were definitely no princess shoulders goin'on.  More like Quasimodo.  I was completely collapsed in my abs, and though by this point Tiki was going relatively well, I knew I couldn't be very effective riding like that.  We came back to a walk, and I adjusted my seat, sliding back a little bit from where I'd been sitting.  Like magic, I could suddenly sit up.  Now, I'm really not sure how the mechanics of that work, but I'll take it.  We spent a few more minutes at the trot, Tiki going pretty well and me not looking like I belong hidden in a bell tower of Notre Dame.  Walked a few minutes, then dismounted.  I had wanted to also try the concept of "floating my hands" for the halt transition, but I knew better than to tempt fate.  We had managed to finish positively; I wasn't going to push my luck.

I will be interested to see how Honorary Big Sister Jen likes Sparky's "bad boy" bit for Tiki; I'm reserving judgement on everything for now, because our rough time last night could have been due to any number of factors.  I felt that there was significantly less "head tilt is the same as bend, right?" coming from Tiki last night; I don't think there is ever a less-than-stellar ride without some good attributes.  And if I had not ridden Tiki bareback, I don't think I would have become quite so aware of my own issue with collapsing through my core.  Part of the point of Project Pony Swap is to help improve us as riders, as well.  I know that I will now be hyper-vigilant regarding my core.      

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Difference Between A Good Clip and A Bad Clip? Two Weeks.

After much back-and-forth, I finally decided that yes, Sparky is getting clipped again this year.  So Sunday was the big day.  Armed with a clean horse,  quieter clippers, new clipper blades, Show Sheen, Kool Lube, Blade Wash, earplugs (for the horse), and a bunny suit (science nerd term for full-body protective suit), I set about my mission.
I have definitely improved; the first time I did a whole body clip, it took me 8 hours.  Yes, 8 hours.  This time I think it only took about 2 1/2, partly because I had to spend some time hunting down an extension cord, and I also had to let the clippers cool down a few times.  It's not a perfect job - there are definitely some track marks, and I forgot about the hot water/baby oil rinse - but the reason for clipping Sparky was not to make him show-ready.  For once, I had truly only a practical purpose in mind, and that was to prevent him from getting so hot and sweaty as we work through the colder weather.  Yaks sweat a lot when worked, you know.  As an added bonus, Sparky is now BLACK again!  Two weeks from now and he'll be gorgeous.

I also did a sort of mini-lesson with Susan, to get some outside input on asking Star to work off her back end.  Star did well, and Susan's feedback was pretty much what I had been working on: transitions, working over the back and lifting the abdomen, shoulder-in, spirals, transitions within the gait, etc.  It's a bit hard for me right now, because I feel like I don't know how much I should be asking of Star - I'm always worried whether she's actually comfortable, or just pushing through - and I'm lacking any sort of goal or direction.  Yes, I can perfectly well enjoy riding my horse with no set goal in mind, but it's much easier for me to have a constructive, purposeful ride if I feel I am working towards something.  While I still don't have any actual long-term goal, talking with Susan did give me reassurance that I just need to keep working with Star at a normal load (but be careful about the footing on which I jump her) and gave me the short-term goal of really improving Star's transitions, especially up into trot from walk, as that one, in particular, is pretty much crap right now.

Star is going to another IEA show on Sunday; she was absolutely wonderful at the last one.  She was nearly perfect, just trucking along and doing her job, while other horses in the ring were leaping and bucking.  I was concerned for a time when she had a loose, floppy rider and looked off in the deep footing, but that went away once she had a better rider.  At one point the steward thanked me for bringing her. =)  The one other moment that was less-than-perfect was Star's random stop at a crossrail; I really don't think her rider caused it, so I felt bad for the rider, because they'd had a good round up to that point...  but you know you have a pretty neat horse when the first thing out of that rider's mouth as they come out of the the ring is, "I LOVE this horse!"  

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Figure-8s are Bad-Ass, and I now have a legitimate reason to use one, or XC Clinic Day

Through a various set of circumstances, I found myself able to finally participate in a XC clinic with Local Event Trainer Who's Pretty Damn Good.  Honorary Big Sister Jen was nearly pleading with me to go - she claimed it would make her feel better to have someone there who is brave.  I guess at some point I was assigned the role of "brave."
I decided, after much hard thought, to try a new bitting configuration for Sparky for this XC outing.  I read a lot about people changing the noseband, rather than increasing bit for their horses.  Now, this makes a lot of sense to me and seemed, perhaps, a most excellent solution with Sparky, because he gets so behind the bit in any metal mouthpiece, regardless of how "soft" that mouthpiece may be (JP double-jointed full cheek with copper-rolly-ball, anyone?).  I really like how Sparky goes in his Duo on the flat, but he sometimes gets a little strong in it while in company or over fences.  So I decided to try his Duo with a figure-8 noseband.  I reasoned that it would put an eensy-weensy bit of pressure on his nose, and well, I already had one, so it was rather convenient.  Jumping him around in it a couple days prior, it seemed to work pretty well.  Of course, for XC Clinic Day, the JP was on back-up. ;-)

XC Clinic Day was a beneficial day.  Though Sparky was there with this two best buddies (the three of them - AKA: The Three Stooges), Sparky, AKA Moe, wasn't pulling or racing around to try and catch up with them.  He seemed content to just listen to me and do as I asked.  After warming up on our own at a walk, trot, and canter, we started out by going over a crossrail in the stadium ring.  Sparky and I approached at a trot the first time.  He wanted to make a bit of a bid at the jump, but I held him and maintained the trot, and he jumped it very well.  The next time over we cantered, and then the jump was raised to a vertical.  I thought Sparky might try something funny with it - like a stop - so I rode very positively to the jump, keeping my leg on.  He jumped that one quite nicely, as well.  We then moved on to a few jumps strung together: vertical to oxer to barrels.  I knew the vertical and barrels would be fine, but I wasn't 100% sure on the oxer, so again I rode in a manner to convey, "We are not stopping."  The Sparkplug was perfect.  So perfect, in fact, that he got a pat from Local Event Trainer and was told "You're a good pony."  I told her to not jump to any conclusions, yet.

It was now time to head out to XC.  No baby steps, here - straight to the point, jumping the Lincoln Logs, a hanging log, and an oddly-shaped log on the ground.  I knew Sparky would nail the Lincoln Logs, and the last log, but we've only ever done the hanging log once, so I had some concerns.  Unfortunately, since I "knew" Sparky would be fine over the Lincoln Logs - they looked so small, now! - I rode rather poorly and we got a crappy spot, causing me to end up too forward with my upper body.  I wasn't too concerned, because I know that's not my standard MO.  Local Event Trainer, however, jumped all over me for it.  This bothered me, because I felt as though a sweeping assumption was being made because of one fence.  I guess you only get one shot to make a good first impression, but had we not just jumped several stadium jumps well?  Didn't that count for anything?  We approached the hanging log, and I asked Sparky to trot to it: I wanted to be sure he was where he needed to be (in terms of being on the aids, that is), and I wanted less forward momentum if he did decide to stop.  I kept my leg on, but held him where I wanted him, and he went over just fine.  And I got yelled at for not kicking and galloping forward.  We cantered to the oddly-shaped log, about which I had no concerns, but having learned my lesson from the Lincoln Logs, also didn't take for granted, and it went well.  I think I was told, "Much better," and then directed to go do the last two again, this time keeping my leg on and kicking to the hanging log.  Hmmmm....  (it went just fine, as, at this point, I knew it would).

On to the ditches.  Sparky was a bit of a pig starting out, and stopped.  And I again got yelled at to sit up.  Okay, this time I really should have known better and stayed back more, given our history with ditches.  I eventually coerced Sparky across (read: smacked him so that he knew I wasn't playing his way today), and we came back over like it was no big deal.  We were to then jump the small ditch, and continue on to a new jump - another set of logs like the Lincoln Logs.  The ditch was fine, but Sparky stopped at the logs, which didn't surprise me.  I'm pretty sure I got yelled at again about leg.  I gave Sparky a tap with my crop, and we re-approached.  I rode better, and Sparky went over.  We turned around and came back over, me keeping in mind a postitive ride with leg.  Sparky went right over, and we continued on to the ditch, which was again pretty much flawless.  It was then decided that Sparky needed to do the big ditch, as well.  Sparky again decided to slam on the brakes.  He got smacked, protested minimally, we re-approached, and over he went.  On our return trip, he stopped again, but I was more ready for it this time, and didn't get tossed up his neck until he bucked in protest at being smacked.  A very small (for Sparky) confrontation, and he went over again, with some hesitation.  We then strung it together with the new logs, and all was well.

We then moved on to the "middle" of the Calimar XC field.  We were now to string together the small bank up, the small bank down, to a kinda-rampy-hangy-log thing that I'd never done before and looked bigger than the previous hanging log, up the big bank, over the barrel-train, back over the barrel train, down the big bank (gulp) and an almost 90-degree turn to another new jump that distinctly reminded me of a firewood rack.  The small banks were fine - we'd done those before - but I was a bit nervous about the kinda-rampy-hangy log thing.  Remembering the new log jump, I kept my leg on, thought positive thoughts, and we went over - despite Sparky's misgivings about the jump and his desire to stop.  It had not been a very good approach, because Sparky was looking for a way out and was being wiggle-wormy, BUT he went over.  This was definitely something of a breakthrough.  Of course, Local Event Trainer didn't see it quite the same way I did, and wanted us to do it again, this time stay in the middle of the log thing.  So we did it again, and this time as we went over, I channeled our work with Greg Best, and used my right leg and an opening left rein to keep him straight, with a successful result and a much better jump.  Up the big bank with some hesitation, and over to the barrel train and either a rotten jump.  I suppose here I was again taking the jump for granted.  We went over a few times, but it was always sticky, even coming back over.  We then went to the big bank down.  I think this was the only jump I was truly nervous about.  Even if I stay back, Sparky is still pretty talented at tossing me forward... I really did not want to go over his shoulder and down another three feet beyond the usual.  Sparky did stop, and it took a little convincing to go down the bank, but eventually he did.  It was also always a bit sticky, so it's now on the list of "Things To Work On."  We then cantered up to the firewood rack, and for some reason, I felt really good about it.  And dammit, I was right.  Another jump we'd never seen before, and really, it felt pretty perfect.  Figures that the hardest jump is the one we'd do the best.  We took a break, and then did the last three jumps again.  The barrel-train and down-bank were still not great, the the last one was again pretty damn good.

We then progressed to the water complex.  Down the little bank into the water, up the little bank out, down the ramp into the water, and canter to a vertical right at the exit.  When I had my approach right, the canter in and vertical out went really well.  Of course, that was the minority of the time.  Once we did a reasonable job with that, we were to then go jump another rampy set of logs and then the small cabin right by the water wheel.  These were also jumps we'd done before, so I knew the only reason we might have problems would be if Sparky decided to again test me.  The two jumps rode fine, but now Local Event Trainer got on my case about my hands and catching my horse in the mouth.  At least she did seem to realize that it's a trust issue - I don't trust that Sparky is going to not stop/duck out, and hard - but she kept on harping that he will start stopping all the time if I'm not softer in the air.  So we did it again; of course, this time I knew we were okay, so of course, it was much easier to trust my horse.

As we were heading back to the trailer, Local Event Trainer again admonished me about my hands, and "he'll start stopping all the time."  Really?  *Sigh*  Please don't get me wrong - I think that going to this clinic was a great thing for Sparky and I, but I also think it illustrates some of the shortfalls of one-day clinics, and the fact that all clinicians are not created equal.  As a clinician, I realize that one has to make some relatively quick assessments of horses and riders, which I'm sure is no small task.  However, the drawback is that (I feel) sometimes the assessments made are not always 100% accurate.  No, you don't know me, my horse, and our history... but there is a reason I ride the way I do (for the most part!  See the section about the Lincoln Logs).  And I *do* know my horse.  He doesn't stop because I sometimes might have a rather strong feel on his mouth.  He stops because he's either worried, or an asshole.  I think I felt a bit like Honorary Big Sister Jen did when people kept suggesting she remove Tiki's hind leg wraps.

Honestly, I left feeling a little defeated.  Sparky was pretty much a rockstar, and I am actually feeling like maybe we might have a future in this eventing thing, but... 
I'm not used to being told that I'm going to hurt my horse's confidence, or that I'm going to cause him to start stopping.  No, I didn't ride perfectly.  I made some dumb mistakes, yes.  But it's not like I'm riding some made packer.  Really, my horse is not an easy horse to ride.  Someday he will be, but we're not there, yet.  But I really don't like leaving with the feeling that I didn't ride well.

I think that perhaps Local Event Trainer is not the right match for me.  It's not at all that she didn't help me, or that I don't like her as a person, or that I don't think she knows her stuff - because she did help, I do like her, and I do think she knows her stuff.  I just think that maybe it's not a good personality match for a teaching relationship.  That said, I do really appreciate that she pushed me a bit beyond my comfort zone in jumping Sparky over scary new fences.  Jumping the never-before-seen kinda-rampy-log-thing and the firewood rack on the first presentation is a BIG accomplishment for Sparky and I.

It's like I've said before: everyone has something to teach you.  You take what works now and use it, and you file away the rest for future reference.  So I'm taking the good stuff, filing away the not-so-good stuff, and remembering that I would still rather ride with Local Event Trainer than some other trainers out there.

And Sparky's figure-8 and Duo combination worked great!  I now have a legitimate reason to put him in a bad-ass-looking figure-8!   


Friday, October 14, 2011

Project Pony Swap, Part Deux: Under the Lights

I don't know why it's crooked, and I can't fix it.
Wednesday night I interrupted Tiki's normally scheduled programming to bring him Part Deux of Project Pony Swap.  I had ridden Sparky first, in hopes of having some daylight (no such luck), so it was about eight when I pulled Tiki out of his stall.
Honorary Big Sister Jen had used his dressage bit for the IEA show on Sunday, so I used that same bridle; to protect the preshus, speshul, sensitive red-head's ears, I did a very Morgan-y thing, and tucked Tiki's forelock under the browband and to the side.  Because I was feeling a bit lazy and a bit pressed for time, I also used my saddle on him.  Because my saddle is too wide for him, and partially due to a discussion on Sunday, I also used my sheepskin halfpad (with front shims) on him as the only pad.  Delicate, preshus flower and all that.

I would like to make an aside here, and point out that I really have the best barn owners ever.  Last year, they put some lights in the arena, largely because it was always dark by the time I was at the barn and working with Star in prep for Nationals.  Throughout summer I didn't need to use them, but for the first time this season, I turned on the arena lights.

Because I knew Honorary Big Sister Jen was planning on taking a dressage lesson with Susan the next day, I didn't plan on doing anything too terribly difficult with Tiki.  I figured dragging him out at 8:00 PM and riding him under the lights (something I'm not sure he's done before) was trying enough.

We warmed up much as we did last week - W-T-C on a loose rein.   An improvement over last week is that Tiki immediately settled in to a decent length of stride at both the walk and trot, rather than doing his best impression of a sewing machine.   After warming up, I picked up contact and was greeted with some pissy-fine-I'm-going-to-trot-ness.  Back to a walk - on contact - and proceeded to do some circles each direction.  We moved up into the trot, and trotted for a long time, with lots of serpentines, circles, and general changes of direction.  My primary focus was to acheive as little head tilt as possible and to maybe convince Tiki to soften, but keep contact. 

To this end, I actually asked Tiki for less bend than normal, riding him a little bit straighter.  This worked in two ways: #1) If I'm not asking for a BIG bend, then Tiki has no reason to give me his goofy head tilt.  Since I know he can bend, I wasn't worried about "loosing" his ability to do so - it's not always about putting together all the parts, sometimes it's just about the pieces; and #2) Tiki is your typical chestnut Thoroughbred mare, except for the mare part.  He is sensitive.  I mean, he swishes his tail and kicks out from his tail brushing him-type sensitive.  And what I've found is that sometimes he gets in such a hurry to move away from leg that he forgets to use himself properly.  The "riding straight" seemed to work pretty well (remember, "straight" is all relative).  By asking for a bit less bend, and focusing on inside-leg-to-outside-rein, I felt that we maintained a pretty good track, with his hind end following the track laid by his front end.

In terms of contact and softening and keeping shape and all that good stuff, other than focusing on the above, I kept a steady contact (still working to keep my elbows soft and following), setting the parameters Tiki was allowed to work within.  It started out with a bit more "telling" him where he needed to be, but once he was there and maintained the "acceptable" range, it was much more "asking" him to keep up the good work.  Over time, this, along with our changes of direction, circles, serpentines, etc, resulted in Tiki really lightening, carrying himself, and developing a little bit of schwung - swinging in the back.  And he felt great.  I could have ridden that trot for hours.

We cantered only a little bit after that really good trot work; I only wanted to improve our transitions.  A few up and down transitions, and I was content there.  We did just a little bit more trot (mainly because I'd been having so much fun with it), and then came back down to the walk and halted.  It was again a nice halt - not quite square - but with no head-flingy pissiness.

So overall, the really neat things were as follows:
- Minimal head tilting
- Really excellent trot work with softness, lightness, and swinging over the back
- Maintaining correct bend and outline on a circle when I "gave up" the inside rein
- Much improved canter transitions
- Nice stretchy-over-the-back work at the trot
- Pretty darn good halt
- Tiki didn't seem to give a rat's ass about the lights

One more thing:  Tiki is not quite as clean as I'd thought.  I have to wash my saddle pad now.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Quarter-Circle of Death

The thing with having two horses is that it seems that it's never time to get one horse going again... it seems like it's always time for both!

It's been a while since I jumped with Sparky, and if he's going to play at IEA horse this year, let alone play at any eventing-like things, he needs to continue progressing in his jumping - preferably without the attitude.  Therefore, last night was jumping night.

I planned on starting out in the usual manner - W-T-C, followed by some lateral work and circles, but Sparky had a different idea.  He quite clearly wanted to work off some steam, so I gave him the reins and let him set the pace.  He picked up a brisk trot, went a few times around, then picked up the canter.  After a couple of circuits at the canter, he came back down to the trot, and then walk.  We changed directions, and he did the same thing - trot, to canter, to trot, to walk.

Now that Sparky was content and ready to focus on what I wanted, we moved onto some lateral work and circles.  He's still not quite figured out haunches-in, but he's getting there.  He was definitely less frustrated with it when asked on the circle rather than on the rail.  His shoulder-in, as always, was quite good, and his leg yield is continuing to improve.  Well, really, I should say my leg yield is continuing to improve, because I know the issues we have with it are really more mine than his.

Once I felt we were sufficiently bend-y and warmed up, we moved onto jumping.  Honorary Big Sister Jen had set two jumps at 9:00 and 12:00 on the circle of death.  I'm usually too lazy and/or too pressed for time to move jumps much, so those were the same jumps Sparky did.  I had set the 9:00 jump as a cross rail to start out.  We approached on the left lead, and I used the same approach Greg had me use in the clinic, of starting to the right of center and landing to the left of center.  Once we had done that a few times, we reversed and did the same on the right lead.  Sparky behaved perfectly, so I hopped off and changed the crossrail to a 2'3" vertical.  We again started on the left lead, and repeated what we had done over the crossrail. 

Once we had gone both directions over the 2'3" vertical, I decided it was time to move on the the 12:00 jump, which I'd set at 2'6".  Sparky was listening well on the approach, but I will admit, I had a moment of worrying that he was going to stop.  Instead of continuing to worry though, I quickly formed Plan A and Plan B.  Presented in the order in which they were formulated: Plan A was that if he stopped, he was getting his butt beat, and it might turn into the previously-predicted knock-down, drag-out battle;  Plan B was to sit up, keep my leg on, keep a slight, but soft feel of his mouth, and ride confidently to the jump.  Plan B prevailed, and Sparky jumped the 2'6" off both leads very well.

Finally, I decided that we were doing well enough to attempt the quarter-circle of death, at least on the left lead.  Twice in a row, Sparky complied and neatly jumped over the 2'6" vertical at 12:00 and then went right over the 2'3" vertical at 9:00 with no hesitation.  I was very pleased with all his effort, so I called it quits with that.

There is still room for improvement in the areas of bending and following the track for Sparky; he didn't have quite enough bend through his body to execute the ideal bending track between the two jumps, but I was very pleased with his willingness to try.  He is still green, so perfection is definitely something I cannot expect.  On the plus side, he was really good about moving off my leg to correct our track, and his canter continues to improve.  He very readily took both leads, even during our Sparky-guided warm-up, so that indicates to me that he is getting stronger and more comfortable on his right lead.  Overall, I was very pleased with my Napolean Dynamite.

When I was done with the Sparkplug, I hopped on Star to do some work on the flat.  I had changed her Pelham back to the one she seems to prefer, with the longer shank and the ported mouthpiece.  It was like I had a completely different horse than I did the other night.  I don't think bending is ever going to be Star's strong suit, but she was much less stiff, and just seemed, in general, more happy.  The current plan is to do some jumping with Star on Thursday, also with this Pelham, and evaluate which bit to use for the IEA show from there.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Commence Project Pony Swap

As I was riding Sparky sometime last week, a comment made by Honorary Big Sister Jen came to mind.  On the day a few months ago when we rode together and flatted each other's horses, she had commented something to the nature of if we were to combine our horses, we would have a really good horse.  So the other day, I had what can only be described as a Brilliant Idea.

So I call up Honorary Big Sister Jen, and tell her I have a Brilliant Idea.  And she says, "Oh, boy..."  Huh?  Turns out that the phrase "teetering on the brink of brilliance or disaster" must apply to my so-thought Brilliant Ideas, and Honorary Big Sister Jen wasn't sure which one this would be.  But this one was a good one.  For real.  This was my idea:

Once a week for the next month, Honorary Big Sister Jen and I should ride each other's horses.  This is to be dubbed "Project Pony Swap."  (Though in all honesty, I didn't come up with that name right away).

Obviously, Jen and I have different strengths and weaknesses in our riding abilities.  Not only is this reflected in our horses, but our horses also have different strengths and weaknesses, which is reflected back in us... because we are the primary riders and trainers of our own horses.  Therefore, by riding each other's horses, potentially both riders and both horses could benefit.  So it actually was a brilliant idea, and Honorary Big Sister Jen agreed.

Commence Project Pony Swap
Date: 02Oct2011
Time: 13:30
SOP: Flat only, any and equipment preferred by rider

Project Pony Swap commenced on Sunday, with me riding Tiki.  I put him in his dressage tack, because I wanted to use his Myler dee, which is on his dressage bridle.  The dressage saddle then became a necessity, because, well, we can't have mismatched tack.  Tiki's reaction to the entire pre-ride and starting-ride process was pretty funny - from "You're getting me out of my stall?" to "Oh, hey, yeah, I know you," to "Oh, you're tacking me up?  Okay," to "Wait, where are we going? to "Huh?  You're riding me?"

Once I was aboard and after much fiddling with stirrups, we started off at a walk on a loose rein.  Tiki, quite predictably, seemed to think, "You're not my mom, so... this slow, pokey walk is what you get."  Umm, no.  He quickly got the idea that we were still going to have a nice, forward walk.  As we moved up to the trot, still on a loose rein, Tiki reverted to his best impression of You're-Not-My-Mom-So-I'm-A-Sewing-Machine.  Sorry, Charlie.  Again, once he figured out that I knew better and that he really is capable of a decent trot and insisted he use it, we had a nice, forward trot.  We then moved up into the canter; by this time Tiki had figured out he wasn't going to get away with bare minimum effort, and the canter was also quite nice.

We came back down to a trot, and from there we proceeded to do lots of circles, figure-eights serpentines, and other various changes of direction.  When I saw that Tiki thought that tilting his head was the same as bending, we dropped back to some much smaller circles at the walk to really encourage actual bend.  Ah, what an overachiever!  As we moved back out to a bigger circle, Tiki offered up a lovely rubberneck, complete with a shoulder lost (popped) to the outside and a "Ohp - shoulder's going this way, so am I!"  D'oh!  So I didn't try to pick at him on the circle; instead, we moved back to an outside track and started playing with some shoulder-in and haunches-in.  I also threw in some leg-yielding and spirals in and out for good measure. 

The transitions to the canter were not as neat and clean as I would have liked, but I do think this goes back to the idea of "different people doing things different ways."  I am 100% sure I don't ask for the canter the same way Jen does.  However, he did get the idea, and moved up into a very decent canter, despite the not-beautiful transition.  We didn't do too much at the canter, because I was really only looking for an agreeable canter on contact, rather than it just being an agreeable canter because he could do whatever he wanted with his head. 

We came back to the trot and did some more circles, spirals, and various changes of direction.  By this time, Tiki was feeling really good - nicely balanced and even between the reins, no head tilting, shoulder-popping, or haunches drifting.  The spirals to the left were definitely not as good as the spirals to the right - much stiffer - but overall, there was much improvement through the course of the ride.  As we finished up, we trotted down the quarter line and came to a lovely, square halt without the slightest head toss.  Tiki's nose was definitely not vertical as we came to the halt, but he was very accepting of the contact.

Overall, it was a very good ride, and I really had fun.  While Tiki is not a complicated ride, per se (something with which Honorary Big Sister Jen has done a really good job), he does sometimes have some tricks that have to be carefully managed, like the head-tilting thing.  I had to be very careful with my aids to correct the head tilt without losing bend.  And the occasional sewing machine impression rearing its ugly head.  If I didn't ask just right for a bigger step, I was given faster instead.  I was particularly pleased with our halt at the end.  When I've ridden Tiki in the past, he has sometimes seemed almost resentful of contact.  I think that his very nice halt demonstrated a much better acceptance of contact not only from what I have experienced from him previously, but even from what was offered up at the beginning of the ride.

I think Project Pony Swap is going to be fun! 

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Out of Practice

Okay, so maybe 2'9" wasn't the best starting point, but in my defense, I really did think it was only 2'6" at best.

I rode Star on Friday, with the intent of jumping her (over something bigger than a crossrail) for the first time since her knee injection.  And we are definitely out of practice.

So the story goes something like this:

Star has been an IEA horse for the past two seasons.  But the situation is a little different this year, and I wasn't sure I could justify letting some kid I don't really know who might ride with a trainer I don't really like jump around my amazing horse when my costs for maintaining her have gone up (and said kid will likely have no appreciation for this) and it is more wear and tear on an already-deteriorating joint.

But the fact remains that Star is good at her job as an IEA horse, and the fact of the matter is that as winter rolls around, I simply will not have the time to keep her as fit as she needs to be.  I now need to be extra-vigilant about keeping her weight down, and exercise really is one of the best things for an arthritic horse.

So I've decided to just take it one day at a time.  Star will be going to her first IEA show of the season next Sunday.  I will be there all day, so I will be able to monitor how she is doing, and I will see how she comes out of it at the end of the and the next.  If she's uncomfortable at all, she's done.

So to this end (and because I'd been meaning to do it for a while, anyway), Friday was a jumping day for Star.  She was great in the sense that she never hesitated, never stopped, and didn't knock down a single rail, but we do need to get back into a better working partnership.  Some distances were long, some were close, and some, when we were working as a team, were pretty darn good.  Several of those long or short distances did results in pretty good rubs, which, although the rail didn't fall, are still not my favorite thing.

And I'm pretty sure I didn't look too pretty, either.

I think that it's just a matter of time before we're back in the swing of things.  I think, too, going back to our regular Pelham will help.  I have now tried her a couple times in a mullen mouth Pelham with a shorter shank than our usual Pelham, as I thought it might be a more appropriate bit for IEA riders.  But I flat out don't like the mullen.  I personally don't like riding Star in her Kimberwicke, either - in both the Kimberwicke and the mullen Pelham, she gets stiff, and she was very brace-y in the Pelham.  She seems to really like her regular Pelham, so... well, who am I to argue with a reserve world champion?

So we'll try out out usual Pelham again later this week, after tomorrow's Adequan shot.  If all is well, Star can go in that for Sunday.  And if it's not great, we'll just put her back in her old IEA-standby Kimberwicke.

And for our own purposes, we'll just keep working to get back into the swing of things.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Good To Be Back In The Saddle

Now that the Bike MS Atlanta ride is over (and went very well), I'm back to spending more time riding my horses.  I like biking, but I don't enjoy it nearly as much as I do riding.

I had very good rides on all three horses on Sunday... lots of flatwork and working on bending for all of them.  I continue to be amazed at how well Star is doing.  The Adequan really seems to help her a lot.  Sparky seems to be in a frame of mind that he wants to continue to get attention, because he's also been REALLY good.  Kellie was pretty amazing, as well.  I think I've ridden her exactly once since the clinic, so I was very impressed by her willingness to still work over her back, bend, and give to the bridle.

I rode Sparky again on Wednesday evening while Debbie rode Kellie.  Sparky behaved himself like a perfect gentleman and was moving off my leg and bending really well, even achieving a bit of haunches-in.  He can be a bit tricky, because he does like to get very behind the bit on the flat in everything but his Duo bit.  I generally just don't worry about his head/neck... when he's working correctly, they will go where they are supposed to go.  At least, that's my current theory.  While I was really happy with how well he was bending and moving off my leg, there is still definitely room for improvement.  He does also have a pretty strong drift originating in his shoulder; it was most noticeable on Wednesday at the canter... he really likes to pop his shoulder and drift out.  Just one more thing to work on, I suppose. 

Thinking back to the combined test we did last December, I do see that Sparky's canter has improved a lot.  A couple comments from that test included, "Lacks clear bend effort" and "Could be steadier in bridle" - both of which were very true (I'm sure the bells didn't help).  Again, while still not perfect, we are starting to attain actual bend in the direction of travel, as well as developing more steadiness in the bridle.  The icing on the cake is that we are getting to a point where picking up the right lead is much easier - still not as easy as the left - and we need less counter-bend.

I just found out that the November horse trial I had planned on with Sparky is over $300, so I've now scratched that from the list, as well.  It's not so much that I think $300 is too much for a horse show, but it IS a lot compared to the Dixie Cup or the Morgan Grand National for what it is - ESPECIALLY considering that, at this point, even getting around XC without being eliminated is not a sure thing.  (Remember the asshole comment?)  So the plan is now to continue schooling, hopefully get in some lessons with Susan, maybe with Gigi, go XC schooling, and aim for some schooling CTs/3-Phases this winter.  Hopefully by next spring, we'll be ready to make an actual horse trial debut.

And speaking of winter - IEA season is starting soon.  I am probably way more excited about this than I have right to be, but it is definitely something I enjoy.

Also speaking of winter, I am back to debating - once again - whether to clip my horses this year.  I hate doing it, but they're both already getting hairy...  Ideally, I would just start blanketing them to prevent such heavy growth, but it's still too warm.  *Sigh*  I guess I'll just wait for now and see what the season brings. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

A Different Kind of Ride

I don't have anything to update in regards to the horses, as I haven't even been to the barn in a week and haven't ridden in a week and a half.  I'm writing this today to appeal to my few readers to please support me in a different kind of ride.  I have spent much of the last three weeks preparing for a 60-mile, two-day bike ride in support of the National MS Society.  I will be riding at least 35 miles on Saturday, and at least 25 miles on Sunday, for a total of 60 miles.  

I originally signed up for Bike MS: Atlanta back in February but wasn't able to actually start biking until three weeks ago.  In that time, I have increased my biking distance from 8 miles, to 12 miles, to 18 miles, to the 25 miles I biked yesterday.  I have five days left to prepare for the event - and 5 days left to fundraise $150.  The money earned all goes to the Georgia chapter of the National MS Society. 

Please help me reach my fundraising goal!  If you have any questions or would like to donate, please email me at  Every little bit is much appreciated! 

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Liquid Gold

After much thought, I have decided that the best approach to managing Star's arthritis is to give her an oral supplement, increase her daily MSM (which she was already getting in her hoof supplement), and start her on monthly Adequan injections. 

Monthly injections are an off-label use of Adequan; it is actually marketed for a loading dose of 7 injections over the course of a month, or for intrarticular injection (in the specific joint).  However, many people have been using Adequan as an intramuscular injection monthly with success, and this is what my vet recommended.  The hope is that we can extend the time needed between knee injections.

In the end, I chose the monthly IM injections not only because that was what the vet recommended, but for a few other reasons, as well.  The loading dose was skipped because A) Essentially, the knee injections were a loading dose for that joint, B) Star isn't expressing discomfort to the point of needing a systemic loading dose, and C) The loading dose is cost-prohibitive.  An IM injection will also have a systemic effect, unlike an IA injection, which will affect only that joint.  If Star has significant arthritis in one knee, it is not unlikely that she has issues elsewhere, as well, so choosing something with a more systemic effect seemed like a good idea. 

I do believe I made the right choice.  I've only ridden Star twice since she received her first Adequan injection.  One of those times was prior to starting on her oral joint supplement, and both of those times were post-knee injection.  The difference has been amazing.  I honestly do not remember the last time my horse felt so good.  Even the times I rode her after her knee injections, she didn't feel like this.

My usually-somewhat-fast-and-definitely-strong-and-on-the-forehand-at-the-canter horse can now canter at a reasonable pace, in a snaffle, without getting strong, heavy, on the forehand, or unbalanced.  She can use her back end like she's supposed to use it.  Her upward transitions to the trot, while still not a prompt as I would like them, are no longer draggy-shuffley-I-don't-really-want-to-trot transitions.

What I had, for years, chalked up to a training issue and some proper foundation work a bit lacking, has probably not been that at all.  My horse was uncomfortable, and doing the best she could to do what I asked while minimizing her discomfort.

My horse has heart - a LOT of it.  And even if we can't make it to the Grand National this year and bring home another title for it, that is what makes a true champion. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

It's Official Again, But In A Different Way

The deadline for the 2011 Morgan Grand National has come and passed.  The show secretary received no entry from me.

As soon as Star went lame, I knew we weren't going to the Grand National this year.  The money that would have been spent on entries instead is going to the vet.  And that's fine.  I would FAR rather have a sound horse.

But that doesn't keep me from being bummed.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Very European Taste in Bitting

 I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that I think I'm pretty good at bitting.  Star is something of a special case, and I still don't have quite the perfect bit for her (well, actually, I think I have found it, but more on that later), but other than that, I think I'm pretty good at finding the right bit for a horse.  However, I have recently come to the conclusion that I must have a very European taste in bitting.

Let me explain:  You see, in my head, I think up these bits that I think would be great to have around... just useful sorts of bits.  And then I decide that I want one.  And so I go looking for it.  And I can't find it.  Apparently, the bits I dream up are imaginary.  That is, until I happen across a European website (usually a UK site, because my German is not too good anymore, and I don't read any other languages), and lo and behold, there is my bit.  And this has happened to me not once, not twice, but several times.

Now of course, I could just buy these bits from Europe, but herein lies the problem: it's a pain in the ass, you have to wait forever, shipping is more expensive, and I'M CHEAP!  I don't want to pay full price for any of these fancy European bits.  But apparently no one else in the United States wants them (or doesn't want them and are therefore selling them cheap to me).  So I'm stuck.

So my list of European bits I want goes something like this:
Swales Pelham
Eggbutt Bradoon with lozenge mouthpiece (OK, technically available in the US - for $200!)
Cheltenham Gag with lozenge mouthpiece
JP Korsteel Oval Mouth Full Cheek (I mean, really?!?)
Mullen Mouth Baucher (though I did cave and buy this one)
Happy Mouth Cheltenham Gag (again, really?)

It's not as though any of these are particularly severe bits, or particularly uncommon mouthpieces or cheekpieces... it's just the particular combination that isn't common here.  Now the one exception to this comment might be the Swales Pelham (pictured above).  The Swales Pelham is unique in that it is a Pelham that applies little to no poll pressure.  Great for a horse that needs a little curb, but at the same time, with poll pressure will get strong and heavy on the forehand... like, say, Star.  I am dying to try her in a Swales; I think it might be just the ticket for her.

Maybe I just need to open my own tack shop or bit shop: "Nicole's Exotic Bits."  Whaddya think?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

My Horse Is Not That Fat... Well, Actually...

I really can't afford to buy it right now, but I had the opportunity to try another saddle on my horses.  I had previously tried a Black Country Quantum X on my horses that was a no-go.  The "X" means the saddle is built on a hoop tree, which is more of an upside-down "U," rather than the more standard "A" shaped tree, and is therefore often more appropriate for broad-backed horses.  Horses like mine.  Because there is more room in the tree (due to the shape), hoop trees often fit a bit larger than a standard tree.  So a wide hoop tree is kind of more like an XW standard tree.

The Quantum X I originally tried was a wide tree; it was a no-go for a few reasons.  Oddly, though the saddle was really too narrow for my horses, it did this funny thing where I felt I was going to get pitched over my horse's shoulder.  Odd.

The saddle fitter with whom I had been working recently contacted me, saying that they now had an XW Quantum X in stock; did I want to try it?  Well, it doesn't hurt to try, so I said sure.  And to me came a lovely XW Quantum X.  So now, we're talking like an XXW standard tree.

And it still didn't work.  The sweat patterns on my horses' backs were more even than I've ever seen them, but still not perfect.  *I* felt pretty good riding in it to start out - very centered and balanced, though the flap was still not quite forward enough - but that feeling of nicely balance and centered kind of faded as I continued to ride.  The reason?  The saddle slipped way forward onto my horses' shoulders!

I took some pictures of how the saddle fit, and sent them to the saddle fitter.  The verdict?  The XW is still too narrow!  So, while I could try an XXW Quantum X (yes, we're in XXXW standard tree territory here now), it's not a stock item, so to try it would cost me $$$ beyond shipping, whether it fit or not.

So I've been referred to Duett saddles.  Duett specializes in fitting broadbacked horses.  Horses like mine.  So it's time to take some new tracings and send them off to Duett.

My horses are not that fat.  Well, actually... they're not.  They are, however, very broadbacked!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Shorty Is All Tired Out

The Sparkplug is all tuckered out.  Three days of "boot camp" did him in - but one of the great things about a Morgan is that if I asked him to keeep going, he would.  Day Three of the clinic was a bit less exciting than Day Two.  The day started off with a bit of a "confrontation;" as we were warming up, Greg had me jump Sparky over a Liverpool that had been folded in half length-wise, just to get a measure of where Sparky's brain was.  Sparky did not hesitate in the least and went right over like he'd been jumping Liverpools his entire life.  The Liverpool was then unfolded, and Greg had us jump it again.  Again, Sparky didn't even blink.  This confirmed what Greg was thinking: Sparky is essentially a very brave horse... he's just a jerk.  Jumping a coop was also on the agenda for the day, so Greg had me present Sparky to the coop to see what he would do.  He seemed a little unsure at first, but then decided that maybe it wasn't so bad, and actually moved up to a trot as we were walking towards it.  "That's not a bad reaction," Greg said.

Day Three was, in some ways, a repeat of the previous days.  We were still working on correcting Sparky's right shift over the jumps.  Our course to jump for the day was the coop, followed by the roll-top, a four-stride line, and the diagonal line from the direction opposite of what we had been jumping it the previous days.  Overall, Sparky did well.  In the course of the day, he stopped four times, but only once (again, at the roll-top) was it an, "I'm a jerk" stop.  After beating his butt, he went over the roll-top no problem... and actually also bucked less and threw less of a hissy-fit than he had the previous day.  He other stops were all "honest" stops - he really was surprised by the jumps.  In the case of the coop, it was likely still some hesitation about the type of jump, but for the pink oxer, it seemed to mostly be a matter of it not even occurring to Sparky that he was supposed to jump it from that direction.  Once he went over each of them, he didn't have an issue again.

I almost wonder if I haven't caused Sparky's issue of shifting right over fences.  When he ducks out, it is almost always to the left, so I probably tend to use more "stay to the right" aids... which may have ended up causing that shift to the right.  It's quite possible, and so is therefore something about which I must be cognizant.

Taking Sparky to the clinic was DEFINITELY a Good Idea.  It was a great experience, and I now have some very specific things to correct and better ideas on how to correct them.

Love me some Greg Best! 

Friday, July 29, 2011

"You're right - he IS an asshole"

Look at those damn ears!  He's not pissed - he's playing and having fun trying to dump my ass.

Sparky just spent three days at boot camp, also known as the Greg Best clinic.  The clinic was again held at Three Bears Farm, about 25 minutes from our barn.  After watching Greg work with another young horse at the last clinic, I knew that taking Sparky to this one would be a Very Good Idea.

As those who follow my blog and who have ever talked to me know, Sparky is, ummm, interesting.  He's brave as hell, but will randomly throw hissy fits (consisting of bucking, running out, stopping...) over the most mundane of things.  Having come to a point where pain has pretty well been ruled out, it's time to crack that peanut brain of his.  And Greg was the perfect person to help me do it.

Day One was pretty uneventful.  It became obvious that Sparky has a fairly dramatic right shift over the jumps, so a primary goal was to work towards correcting that.   "This horse will never go left," Greg proclaimed at one point.  Interesting...

Day Two... ahh...  Day Two is the reason I took Sparky to the clinic.  Sparky's alter-ego (*need a good alter-ego name*) was in attendance.  After a very good start and improved straightness in our warm-up fences, it came time to jump a small course.  A small course that included a roll-top.  I'll admit, I didn't ride very well on the approach to the roll-top the first time; I wanted to see what Sparky would do.  And he did pretty much what I thought he might: he ran out to the left.  And upon disciplining and re-presenting, a MAJOR hissy fit ensued.  And the little jerk dumped me on the ground.  Grrrr... So of course, I do what it completely natural, and in front of everyone (proper adults and small children included), I said to my horse, "You ASSHOLE!"

I climbed back aboard the Asshole, and our battle continued.  There were comments of "pretty good moves" and "maybe join the rodeo instead," but eventually Sparky went over the roll-top pretty well.  Following instructions, I patted him for doing well after landing from the roll-top.  We completed the course, and then (again, under instruction), continued and did the course again.  Sparky again jumped the roll-top well, so I patted him again, and we continued on our way.  Apparently, I didn't need to pat Sparky and tell him he was a good boy that second time - "He knows just how good he thinks he is," Greg commented.

The others in the group went, and once it was our turn again, there was again some hesitation about the roll-top, but overall it went pretty well.  Due to a tired horse and rider, that right drift got pretty bad again, but the bigger issue had been addressed.  As we were wrapping up for the day, Greg was talking about how he likes to apply labels to horses, because he thinks it helps us understand them better.  About Sparky he said (AND I QUOTE!), "You're right - he IS an asshole."  I was also told, in no uncertain terms, that one of these days I was going to have "a knock-down, drag-out battle" with Sparky.  Basically, it is all going to come down to respect... which the Sparkplug currently lacks.

Greg is most excellent at figuring out horses... and he nailed Sparky.  Now this is probably really anthropomorphizing, but it's dead-on:  Sparky is pretty much an arrogant jerk who is pretty full of himself.  If he's ever unsure about something, it's almost as though he covers it up with attitude - "Oh, I didn't really want to jump that anyway."  Basically, he's damn smart, and always looking for a way to keep himself entertained.  And this makes me feel a bit better, because that's pretty much the conclusion at which I'd arrived... but I wasn't sure if I was just plain missing something.  Nope, not missing anything.  My horse is an asshole... but damn he's athletic!

And have no fear - more on the clinic will be forthcoming!

Monday, July 18, 2011

My Last Day at Age 27

27 has, overall, been a pretty good year for me, but with the end of it, I can't help but consider it to be more along the lines of bittersweet.  There were the highs of a new job and a reserve world championship, but I have some pretty mixed emotions right now.

Star was diagnosed today as having significant arthritic changes in her left knee; up until recently (within the last three weeks), she had never taken an off step a day in her life.  There were a couple of times recently that she seemed to take a bit of a soft step, but it was subtle.  A bit over a week ago, it became much more obvious.  The farrier looked at her first, to determine whether we might be dealing with a bruise or an abcess.  I was hopeful, but I knew in my heart that it was something more.  I know my horse; if she is unsound, something is wrong.

The vet was already scheduled to be at the barn today, so she examined Star, determined the lameness was in the knee, and did x-rays.  The arthritis was pretty apparent; it's clearly not something that has developed in only the past three weeks.  It seems that a teeny fragment of a spur that has formed may have chipped off and irritated the joint capsule, causing the acute lameness.  The vet felt the best course of action would be to inject the knee with steroids (a bit of a stronger one, and more of a less-strong but longer-lasting one) and hyaluronic acid.  Star is to stay in a stall overnight, rest for the next three days, back into light work for five days, and then regular work.  We'll see how it goes.

Because the knee is a more high-motion joint than the hock, the long-term prognosis is not as good as if it were the hock.  The vet thinks that Star should return to complete soundness with the injections and that, with maintenence (as needed), Star should be comfortable to be ridden and compete for another couple years.  The vet also recommended that putting her on either Cosequin or Adequan could help lengthen the amount of time needed between joint injections.

The disease will continue to progress, regardless of the amount of work I have her in or what treatment/therapy I use, so I don't have to feel that I might be making it worse by keeping her going.  Star has been my best buddy for 14 years - half my life! - so I will absolutely do what is best for her.  The minute she tells me she's done competing, she's done; from that point, I will continue to do whatever she needs to be comfortable for daily non-competitive life and beyond.

I'm relieved and grateful that the diagnosis wasn't worse, and honestly, I'm not surprised at what it was.  As soon as I heard that the farrier thought it was her knee, and when she was still unsound a week after she was confirmed unsound, I had a pretty good idea of what was in store for today.  I would be lying though, if I were to say that I wasn't a bit disappointed, though.  Hope springs eternal, I guess.

Part of me, however, is broken-hearted, looking at the long-term picture.  I couldn't care less about any of the implications in terms of competition.  What bothers me is that, while Star is getting older, she's still not an old horse.  It's not unreasonable to think that she'll be with me for another 15 years... but that means that her already-significant arthritis will also be around.  And I hate the idea of what that could mean for her comfort level and quality of life.  It progressed as far as it did with no indication whatsoever that it was even there... Star is so tough and so stoic that I'm a bit terrified of in the future, how much further it will continue to progress and how bad it will get (and therefore how much pain she'll be in) before I have any indication.  I can only imagine how much pain she had to be in now to finally be unsound.  It breaks my heart to think of anything causing my horse pain and negatively affecting her quality of life.

The upside to this, however, is that I will not have to play as much at "ignorance is bliss" regarding her hocks.  Because she hasn't been unsound, I've not had her hocks examined for the effects of wear and tear from jumping.  Now that she will be on either Adequan or Cosequin, that should help any issues that may be bubbling under the surface as far as her hocks are concerned.  In the relatively near future, I will have an actual examination done on her hocks, just so I'm dealing with a known quantity, even though there has been no real indication that there is a problem.

We're likely not going to the Morgan Grand National this year.  The money that had been earmarked for those entries will now be going to the vet.  I would be lying if I said I'm not slightly disappointed, but the long-term well-being of my horse FAR exceeds the importance of going to a horse show.  It does make me even more glad that we did go last year and had an amazing show; it may have been the last time we will go. 

Star is my baby, and she's done so much for me, I can't not do right by her.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Nations Cup

It's been a pretty good week or so.  The next couple of times riding Star after "Beg Pardon," I decided to put her in her double bridle.  The idea was that I could ride as much as I wanted on the snaffle, and only pick up the curb if she was blatantly awful.  The advantage of the double over the Pelham is that she doesn't tend to get behind the bit the way she does in the Pelham.

Sparky has been doing really well lately, and we've played a bit at "Nations Cup."  After some joking around last Sunday about whether or not we'd ride each other's horses, I decided it might be interesting to see Kyle ride and jump Sparky.  So about a week ago, when I was riding with Kyle in the ring, after we had both jumped around a little bit, we switched horses.  It was getting dark, so I couldn't see quite as much of what Sparky was doing as I would have liked, but he and Kyle got on pretty well.  After she was done jumping Sparky, she decided that she wanted to see me jump her horse, Guilder (aka, Sparky's best buddy).  I figured why not, and hopped him over a few jumps.  It was a lot of fun, and did help to really illustrate the advantages of riding many different horses, and not always your own.

Thinking about the riding other peoples' horses thing, and thinking about it being good for Sparky to have other people on him, I convinced Honorary Big Sister Jen to swap horses with me on the flat when I unexpectedly got off work early on Friday.  So I flatted Tiki, and she flatted Sparky.  It was amazing to feel how much better Tiki is going now than he was the last time I rode him (oh, about a year and a half ago!).  Honorary Big Sister Jen has done a great job with him.  After flatting, we switched back to our own horses and started doing some jumping.  We had set a gymnastic; Sparky was great!  He didn't stop at a single fence, and eventually went through the gymnastic with the center vertical set at 2'6" and the oxer also set at 2'6" and stretched out pretty nice.  There were a couple of sticky go's as he figured things out, but he always made an honest effort.

On Sunday, I had Kyle ride Sparky again... I wanted to actually be able to *see* what he was doing in the daylight!  It wasn't perfect - there were a few stops - but overall, they did really well; there were a couple of times when Sparky thought, "Maybe not, thanks," after a stop and Kyle gave him a really good ride, letting him know that stopping again was not an option.

Wednesday's ride on Sparky focused mostly on dressage-y flatwork, emphasizing correct bend through the entire body (not just the neck).  We hopped over a couple small jumps, emphasizing "straight."  He did really well; I just need to be consistent in always asking for correct bend.  Going straight is the hardest thing we can ask a horse to do, and unless they can bend correctly, they can't go straight correctly.

The bad news is that Star is off... I rode her a bit on Sunday, thought she might feel a little off on the flat, and it became really obvious when we landed from the coop.  Hoping it was a bruise or abcess, I had the farrier look at her on Tuesday.  Unfortunately, the issue does not appear to be in the foot.  The farrier thought it might be in the knee; the vet will be checking her on Monday.  In the meantime, Star has gone back to 24/7 turnout, with a grazing muzzle if needed.  (Joyce had been putting her in a stall some days to turn her own mares out where Star usually lives.)  It's possible that her off-ness is a byproduct of being stalled, so maybe being out all the time will help.

As a complete aside, the halters with new plates have arrived - they look great!  Kellie is modeling hers in the picture.  

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Beg Pardon

I'm sorry. Was I just yesterday extolling the virtues of the made horse? I may have to take that back.

Star was absolutely awful tonight.  It was like she had forgotten everything she knows.  The plan was just to do some dressage-y flatwork, really encouraging her to step under herself and use her hind end.  Ha!  The ride went something like this:

Nicole: Walk
Star: Walk?  What's walk?  Jig?  Okay.
Nicole: No, walk
Star: Unbalanced, strung-out trot?  Okay.
Nicole: Walk, dammit.
Star: Back to the jig?  Okay.
Nicole: Whoa and back your ass up!
Star: Back? What's back?  Forward and circles?  Okay.
Nicole: Whoa
Star: I like this one
Nicole: Walk
Star: Plod? Okay
Nicole: Walk on
Star: Trot?  Okay
Nicole: Walk
Nicole: Trot
Star: Slowly slog myself into a jog?  Okay
Nicole: Walk
Nicole: Trot NOW
Star: Run into a too-fast trot on my forehand?  Okay
Nicole: Easy
Nicole: Bend, please
Star: Bend?  Huh? Giraffe?
Nicole: Give to the bit, please
Star: Need more giraffe?

And so it went.  We tried a few spirals at the trot... those weren't terrible, in terms of bend, but there was ZERO impulsion.  Everything about our ride just felt stiff, unbalanced, lacking impulsion and/or any semblance of hind end engagement, and completely lacking in obedience.  *Sigh*  I finally gave up.

I'm not going to beat my head against a wall over this, because I know it was a one-off event, but that doesn't really make it any less frusturating.  It was honestly one of the worst rides I've had in a very long time - and that includes the recent falls off Sparky.  *Grrr*

Horses keep you humble, I guess.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Now It's Official and Appreciating the "Made" Horse

Planets didn't quite align in order for me to take to Mid-A this year, so I'm slightly bummed about that... but at least since I've never been, I don't know what I'm missing! HOWEVER, things HAVE worked out favorably for the Big Deal Show of the year, also known as the Morgan Grand National and World Championship Horse Show. So it's official: Star is going back to Oklahoma City!

I had debated a bit about which hunter classes in which to put her, but it occurred to me last night that, now, since I am not competing at Mid-A, I have no reason to make her play at hunter this year. My main reason for planning on the hunters this year was to "point chase," but with Mid-A out of the picture, the point is moot. SO... I have decided to do the jumpers (of course!), Versatile Morgan, and Carriage Pleasure Driving. That's right - the carriage is going to Oklahoma this year, too! The Versatile Morgan class should also be quite fun. The horses are judged in harness, under saddle, and over fences. It's a class I've wanted to do for ages, so I am very excited.

Star has been doing really well lately. We're both a bit out of shape yet, but I have plenty of time this year to get us into shape. Star has been warming up over 3' with no problem, so if we build a little more strength and scope, we should be pretty golden. For our carriage driving, I plan on actually working on a lot of dressage with her. I think we need a little more straight and push from behind to really excel. I plan on incorporating more eventer-style hillwork and trot sets into our program as well, to help build some stamina and fitness - and that rear end!

In light of my recent frustrations with Sparky, working with Star lately has made me really appreciate having a made horse. It's nice to be able to just canter up to a 3' jump and know that my horse is going to go, and not have to worry that I'm going to get dumped at a crosspole. Don't get me wrong - I LOVE green horses, and I think that riding green horse makes me a better rider - but sometimes it's nice to not have to work *quite* so hard.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Coop Is Thine Enemy

Or so seems to believe Sparky *wry face*

Le sigh. I'm having some issues figuring out my horse. He randomly stops at jumps - not quite in a "dirty stopper" fashion - but stops nonetheless, and I can't figure it out. More or less on a whim, he went on a field trip to the chiropractor. I figured it wouldn't hurt, might help, and would at least give me a gauge of whether I needed to have the vet out for something more serious. He was in some pain upon palpation, but show marked improvement post-adjustment. For good measure, I also waited until he had front shoes back on before riding him again.

A few days after Sparky had his front shoes replaced (which was a few days after being chiropracted), I rode him. His flatwork was quite nice... I could tell by his willingness to stretch over his back that he was feeling more comfortable than he had previously. I had decided that we were going to do a little jumping, just to see where we were. I had set the jumps accordingly: one at 2', one at 2'3", one at 2'6", and the coop at 2'.

I decided to start with the coop. Sparky was plenty well warmed up, and has jumped the coop several times, so it seemed it wouldn't be an issue. Indeed, as we approached the jump, Sparky became quite bold and took me to the jump - and ducked out to the left at the very last second. I'm pretty sure he actually picked up his front feet as if to go over, because just like at Conyers, I ended up somewhere around his ears. Only this time, I didn't manage to stay on, and went over, doing a backwards somersault and landing pretty much under his feet. I'm still not sure how he managed to avoid stepping on me.

I was okay, so I got back up, smacked my little asshole's shoulder, remounted, and we came again. He ducked out again, but I was a bit more ready this time, and stayed where I belonged - that is, in the saddle. I shortened my reins even more, and we approached for the third time. He went over beautifully. We did that a few more times, then moved on to the other jumps.

The other jumps were all basic verticals constructed of regular stadium jumps. He never peeked at any of them - not even the 2'6" vertical, which I trotted him to at a very controlled pace, as I was expecting him to stop. Off that trot with next-to-no-impulsion, he hopped right over the 2'6" vertical like it was no big deal!

He finished the day beautifully, but I'm still a bit discouraged. He shouldn't be in pain, he's definitely not overfaced, and it's not like I'm some terrible rider who punishes him in the air, committing one of the George's "cardinal sins." So I don't quite know what's going on. Is Sparky still expecting to feel pain? Does he just really not like cross-country type jumps? Is he scared? Is he just being an asshole and trying to challenge me?

I really am just not getting it. Input appreciated.