First world problems

It is not often that I think I should slap myself, grow up and get a grip, but today I think that is the only approach.

So far today I have huffed, sighed and groaned over the following:

  • The testimonial I was asked to write for a website has not been used
  • My manager had what looked like a very interesting conversation with a colleague that I felt I should have been involved in but was not
  • I didn’t know there was a dressage and/or show jumping competition in 12 days and now don’t have long to prepare
  • While riding a canter which I was so proud to have managed to slow down from our usual headlong rush, a spectator likened it to race-horse and jockey

I’m currently still furious about the last of this list. Basically he took all my satisfaction away. When I explained to him that actually I was working on slowing him down and felt we were making real progress, and that was really good for us, he dismissed it and told me now I had to show him a real slow canter. I wish I’d have shown him two fingers, to be honest, but I think he thought what he was doing was giving amusing teasing encouragement rather than taking the satisfaction I had with my ride and stamping on it. Instead of doing anything more I called it a day and went to cool down mode. (To be honest we’d already been riding longer than I usually would, so it wasn’t like I cut the ride short because of him.)

But in between my waves of seething anger I do see that it’s all

First world problems!

He is a just a silly man who’s never been on a horse and is actually a nice person, even if he pushed all the wrong buttons with me today.

Only a few months ago I was wondering whether I’d bought a horse I’d never manage to canter, and here I am not only cantering every day but managing to see progress in training him to do it in a way he finds even harder (i.e. on the correct leg, and not rushing at top speed).

Oh yes, and I have a lovely horse, kept at great expense for leisure purposes. How first world can you get? ;)

I’m not sure why but for the past few weeks this sort of thing has been getting a bit out of proportion. I just need to put it back in its place and get over myself.

Hopefully I’ll be back to a more resilient version of myself by the weekend, because it’s time for another Lee Pearson lesson! I’m looking forward to showing him our canter work, and in fact all of our gaits. I think I’ve got Drifter working much better since we last saw him, I think we’re less on the forehand and more “gymnastic” but honestly I don’t really know what it looks like to the informed watcher! I guess I’ll find out soon!

Shiny pony!

wpid-20140330_182338.jpg

l realised it’s a long time since I posted any photos. As usual this was because I didn’t take any. But when I saw how beautiful he is in his new summer coat I got the camera-phone out and grabbed a couple of pictures before l tacked up.

The other thing I have to share is that during our cool down after this morning’s schooling session it occurred to me that it might be a reasonable time to try taking the saddle off and having a little walk around without it. In an ideal world my first ever bareback experience would be with an instructor and a lead rope, but the business insurance for the lessons/instructors means there can be no bareback riding in a lesson, so that was out*. On the other hand I had a tired horse (so he’d be happy to walk slowly) and an empty indoor school (so no one else to worry about and minimal distractions/spook triggers). I decided to have a go.

I took the saddle off and led him to the mounting block. Was getting on going to be manageable? It was not nearly as hard as I thought it would be. I tend to forget that at 15.1 he’s actually quite short, so from the mounting block l could just get on as usual by throwing my right leg straight over despite not having a stirrup to use. I landed a little off centre and a little far back and he started walking off immediately but I was able to fidget myself into place OK.

Having survived mounting I realised I was actually on a horse bareback! It felt a bit precarious and I wondered what would happen when we came to a corner. Neither of us were very relaxed – both finding it strange. He moved very carefully, as if I were an overfull glass of water he needed to carry without spilling. That suited me fine! The corners came and went and they were fine too. I was very conscious of the noises from outside the school. A lawnmower started up close by. We were both aware of it but it did not cause problems and we continued concentrating on moving in balance together. I was surprised how comfortable it was, but then he is well padded and not high withered. We only did a couple of laps of the school on each rein. I might have gone on a little longer but I heard hooves outside and thought we were about to have company. I didn’t fancy being on bareback when the doors opened and a horse and rider joined us because it would distract us one way or another, so l hopped off. (Actually the hooves turned out to be a horse being loaded onto a lorry parked just outside, but by the time I realised that I was off already.)

It was an intimate feeling, both physically and mentally. I was aware of his skin, fat, muscle and bone each with their own way of moving beneath me. We were both conscious of my balance with a fiercer focus than usual.

I’m very glad I tried it and I feel it went well. I will do it again but only rarely. I felt I might be causing him discomfort because my weight would be much less evenly distributed over his back than with a saddle.

I don’t know if I’ll ever want to trot bareback but it would be out of the question for now – I can’t sit well in a saddle so it would be hazardous for both of us to try that any time soon. The next target is to sit the trot well enough in a saddle to be able to canter without stirrups. At present if l take my stirrups away we do OK at a very slow trot but he still finds canter transitions hard and cannot canter easily from anything but a fast trot. So I increase the trot speed towards something he can canter from and lose my balance which again means he can’t canter because my balance is upsetting his. It’s a work in progress. When the day comes that I can easily manage all three gaits without stirrups then I might consider trotting bareback!

Anyway, I can now say that I have ridden my horse bareback, and I’m proud of that.

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* While it was a riding school we were not allowed to bareback on the premises at any time. Now we can, at our own risk, at any time except lessons.

Why it’s not fair to compare yourself to others

I started replying to this post by the Inelegant Horse Rider and found that I had more to say than fitted politely into a comments box, so brought it back here to mull over.

I apologise if I’ve already ranted at you on this theme at some point, either in person or here. I have this vague feeling that I have… but anyway here’s the dialogue.

 

Everyman: I could be a great [rider/writer/person] if I … achieved A, wasn’t hampered by B and didn’t worry about C.

Logic: Yes. That’s true. So do that.

Everyman: I can’t do that. I’ve tried to do A and it’s really hard and I can’t quite get it, I have commitments to B and deep-seated psychological issues around C.

Logic: Well, assuming your statement is true, then if you can’t change A, B & C, you can’t be a great [rider/etc.]

Everyman: Well that upsets me.

Logic: Illogical, Captain.

Everyman: But I want to be a better [rider etc]

Logic: Then change A B and C.

Everyman: I can’t. I won’t. I don’t have the physical/mental capacity to do A, B is my life and C is my personality.

Logic: So you’re saying those things are more important to you than being a great rider?

Everyman: Maybe. Maybe it’s more important that I live my own life than that I try to ride as well as someone else who has a completely different body, life and mind. Maybe I have to understand that everyone’s different and just because someone else can do a thing doesn’t mean it’s fair to expect myself or anyone else to do it to the same standard. It doesn’t mean I can’t improve in my own ways, and achieve goals that are a great achievement for me. If I changed my life and my personality I might ride better but I wouldn’t be me any more. I have to be me first and foremost. If I can be a better me that’s great, but I still have to be me.

 

 

Normal feels good

I don’t feel that I have that much to write, but 10 words that say what I mean work to better effect than pages of blargle blargle gloink, so perhaps that is to the good.

Mostly I feel that we have achieved a new normal.

In the new normal the expectation is that D will work properly as a default. But as you might expect for anyone suddenly working harder than they used to, some days this is easier for him and sometimes harder. As a consequence we have a wider range of behaviors under saddle which go from total mental and physical cooperation all the way to stubborn refusal to go nicely. I’m not yet used to the range, but the good rides are fantastic and the defiances well within my capacity to manage and it all feels like progress and a part of the learning process.

I’ve not 100% adjusted my balance to the new saddle yet. For some time my worst position issue has been that I easily get tipped forward in my body position. With the new saddle our balance is subtly different from what my muscles are used to, so it’s even harder for me to keep my place if he suddenly leans on my hands or if we have an unbalanced transition down from canter.

All in all we have wonderful moments of horse and rider harmony, and moments when we look like we’re only just met each other and are not on the same page at all, but I have faith that these moments of harmony will increase and that one day harmony will be our new normal.

For now though, I’m happy to enjoy those moments we have and work on the rest as we go along.

A fitting saddle from the saddle fitter

I was very nervous on the morning of the saddle fitting. The kind of nervous where you spend time looking something that turns out to be already in your hand; the kind of nervous where it takes five attempts to get something out of the kitchen because every time you go in there for it something distracts you and you come out without it; the kind of nervous that makes you incapable of efficient ordinary logical thought.

In short, I appeared to be afraid.

Upon (finally) reaching the yard I yammered on about my nerves to a couple of members of staff and came to the conclusion that a) I was afraid of making a costly mistake and b) my last experience with a saddle fitter left me feeling like I’d done battle and lost.

I left the staff in peace and went to groom, which helped a bit.

The saddle fitter arrived a little early and introduced herself. She began measuring him and taking a history. When she transferred the shapes of him from her flexible curve to the paper she showed me how the left shoulder (which he uses to compensate for the weak right hind) was considerably larger that the right. She had a nice manner and D was very calm.

She began by putting his old saddle on him. Ungirthed it looked OK. And even girthed most of it looked OK, but she had me look at first one shoulder then the other and I could see how the large left shoulder had no room although the other had a nice fit. She will try to sell the old saddle for me, on commission, and the guide price she suggested she’d try to get for in was almost twice what I’d feared she might say. Clearly the scuffs and scratches didn’t take as much off the value as I feared.

So time to try on the contents of her van …

She tried about 6 different saddles on him in the stable, some of which were obviously not right, others of which seemed better. The two that seemed best were both Bates adjustable ones. While I fetched his bridle and put that on she switched the gullet over from a medium wide to a wide in one of the Bates and we could take him to the indoor school for a spin in it. She took my stirrups from the old saddle and remarked that my leathers were such different lengths. I explained that because there was a lot more horse under one side I’d been told to do that so my irons were level.

Unfortunately he and I had a bit of an embarrassing argument about whether he was going into the school… but once we were in and I was on … oooh! After a walk in which I couldn’t tell how he felt about it, we had a trot. A really fast, bouncy, free, happy trot. Crikey! If I buy this saddle I might need a stronger bit to slow this speed demon down! Clearly he liked it! On my side of things although it was very comfortable I felt like it was very unforgiving if I had a wobble of balance. We had a (fast) canter on each rein too.

She showed me how on the left canter lead the strong left shoulder had shoved the saddle so that the cantle was off centre and the weight-bearing area encroached on his spine. She suggested we try the other Bates as the saddle was more supportive and she’d put one of the pad inserts in it to try to compensate for the shoulder.

Although both of the Bates saddles are general purpose, the second one had a more dressage-y shape to it with a deeper saddle but will still be fine for me to jump in for the time being. If we were to start jumping big obstacles it wouldn’t suit, but to be honest I have no great desire for that.

With the insert in, I was impressed to see that my stirrup irons were level when the leathers were the same length. Hurray! Unfortunately that left canter pushed everything off-balance again. So she tweaked the pads, and we tested and it was better but still not perfect and then she moved the location of one of the girth anchor straps on one side.

It stayed put! My legs stayed the same length! Drifter and I both found all of the adjustments felt very strange. We were used to being slightly off-balance and slightly off-centre so  will take us a little while to settle in, but I’m sure we’ll do so much better for it.

When we were properly set up, compensating for his asymmetry of build, I felt for the first time ever that my legs were sitting equally and had equal jobs to do and got equal reactions from him. I had to ask slightly differently for things than we’re used to, so we both had confused moments but it was all positive change.

I couldn’t believe how much difference could be made by using a 4mm insert, but it was so much better. I’m delighted I can ride with both stirrup leathers on the same number hole because I always felt uneasy about them being different and never felt right in the stirrups even though people told me that they were how they should be.

I think this is the one.

Bates_AP_SC_blk

It was really fascinating to learn, for example, how much difference it makes to him where the girth straps were positioned. I truly felt looked after and felt that Drifter and I were getting the best possible care. The entire fit process took two and a half hours, but it felt like a miracle to me how much balance she gave us.

To compare this to my last experience with a different saddle fitter … well this one came off very favourably indeed! I have every confidence that this fitter did her best to get everything right for us. I believe we have a great saddle and a great fit, but if something did go wrong I’d be confident that she’d look after us well. She gave me the confidence to give her feedback on what I felt and it was a positive experience throughout, for both of us.

Having seen her working on the Bates saddles I’m a real convert to the world of adjustable saddles. To be able to try something knowing it can be instantly corrected is amazing and knowing that if he changed shape we can accommodate it gives me real peace of mind. I can’t wait for our next ride!

 

Here’s a youtube video about the adjustable system, which briefly shows the inserts and the structure of these saddles. It’s obviously a sales video but I still think it’s interesting.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SFi_S4BEXfQ

—–
*I know there are kinder bits than snaffles, but as I’ve posted before, a snaffle seems to be what makes him happy, so who am I to argue? But it’s not like I had him in something really harsh.

In which Drifter gives his opinion

I have not had much practice dealing with a horse who plants his feet and won’t be led forward, but we had issues a few weeks ago going into the indoor school, which were attributed  to his being concerned about the doors (which can be difficult to manage if the weather is windy) or the reflections in the mirror. The first time I employed the trick of getting him to move sideways, to un-plant his feet and then circling to the door once he was moving. I assumed it was a one-off issue. The second time, a few days later, was before a lesson so the instructor went behind to drive him in. Obviously not a one-off then, so the next time the indoor school was free we had a training session based on going in and out of that door. At first it took time for him to relax and trust that it was OK to go through the door, which at first I had tied open, but after about 10 minutes we had progressed to the point that we could approach the closed door, stop, open the door, go through as soon as I asked and close the door again on the other side, with no stress, fuss or arguing.

That seemed to have been time well spent. However on Thursday a little resistance crept back in about going into the indoor school. I assumed it was the same issue recurring and made a note to repeat the training when the opportunity presented itself. It being very nice weather we went outside yesterday and I was surprised to find him planting his feet against entering the outdoor school, which he’d never had an issue with. With a little encouragement I got him into the school and rode.

This morning, however, he planted his feet shortly after coming out of his stable. “That’s odd,” I thought, “but perhaps he’s reluctant to walk past the farrier.” I got him moving again but he stopped again within sight of the school. “Somebody is not in the mood for work today,” I thought, getting him moving again.

But outside the school he totally put the brakes on. I tried the sideways and circling maneuver, but he would go no closer. I tried voice (coaxing – no use; cross tone – no use), tapping his girth area, tapping his quarters. I even tried backing him up every time he refused to go forward, hoping he’d end up grateful to be led forward. No dice.

Putting everything together as these approaches failed I came to the conclusion that he might be communicating that the saddle was just too small and too uncomfortable. I now had no intention of getting on board and putting my weight in that saddle, but I wasn’t going to let him learn that he could avoid going places by planting his feet. It’s true that I can’t drag him, but humans use brains and tools to win arguments with horses, not just brawn. So I would win. Little by little I coaxed him close enough that I would grab a lunge whip from the pot by the fence. Armed with that I could lead from in front and tap him on the rear at the same time. Finally I had my horse in the school. Now what?

While I have been toying with the idea of trying my first bareback ride on him one day, my plan for that was to have a neck strap, someone leading him and to be damn sure I would stay in walk. Trying it alone on a fresh and apparently argumentative horse on a windy day did not seem like a good plan, particularly as I couldn’t be sure it was the saddle causing the unusual behaviour. So it would have to be lunging.

After all the fuss to get him in the school I would have to take him back to the stable to get the lunging gear!

So back we went to the stable. Off with the saddle and reins, on with the boots and roller. I didn’t want to use the pessoa because I wanted to be able to see him move as he chose, so I took the side reins with us to put on if he proved he moved normally.

Leading him across the yard past the farrier he moved freely and willingly. He almost seemed eager to get into the school. Removing the saddle had removed the reluctance.

We had a nice little lunging session. Interestingly what I’d been feeling under saddle was confirmed on the lunge – he’s now cantering much better on the previously non-cantering right rein than he is on the left. He’s always been stronger in the left canter, but it’s a stiff strength. The right canter tires quickly but does better with corners and circles than the stiff left.

Although I’d had to pit my wits against his strength to get him into the school I realised, as I put him away, that I was proud of him. He had communicated to me that something was wrong in a way that was completely safe but effective. He had planted his feet and refused, but nothing beyond that. I believe that many horses would communicate saddle fit issues by bucking their rider off or biting, either at girthing or mounting. This was far safer and calmer.

The saddle fitter is coming on Tuesday, so we don’t have long to wait. As long as I go early tomorrow or late in the day we should manage to get somewhere to lunge and, weather permitting, he should be turned out on Monday so he can have a day off from structured exercise. It’s just a shame the saddle fitter didn’t come last week as originally planned, but hey ho!

Rather a good weekend all told. Part 2, Sunday

On Sunday it was the first lovely day of the year. The sun shone all day. I got to the yard fairly early and stood him in the sunshine to groom. Dust and hair flew until he was as clean as brushes would make him, and instead of checking which schools were free, I broke out the hi-vis and the geeky knee boots – we were going hacking. Hopefully as it was still early-ish for a Sunday the roads would be quite quiet.

4 luminous leg bands (his), 1 yellow tabard (mine), 1 fluorescent hat band (mine), 1 fly bonnet (his) and the 2 geeky knee boots (his) later … and we were ready to get the tack out! I tacked up, popped to the toilet and then we were good to go.

My least favourite part of the route is the beginning. The lane there is fairly busy, narrow enough that you can only pass in the passing spaces, twisting so that you can’t see any useful distance ahead and the hedges are high so you and any drivers have no way of seeing each other ahead of time. It was therefore pleasing to me that the first driver we met was the lady whose horse is next-door-but-one from Drifter. Obviously she gave us plenty of space and respect and pulled into a passing place for us. Then we didn’t meet any more cars until the road widens further up. That friendly face early on relaxed me a bit, which of course relaxed him. He looked at a few puddles, but really there wasn’t much that worried him. As we got the lanes which cross the golf course he did see a golf buggy that he wasn’t fond of, but the person driving it (the other side of a hedge from us) was very aware and stopped until we had passed, which was very kind of them. Almost all of the road users we met were equally considerate. The cyclists all seemed to know bikes might worry horses and slowed down. Even the golfers didn’t seem to tee off with such a CRACK as usual, but I assume that was coincidence, not care!

Of course we had the odd moment that startled him, but I was more assured than before in dealing with them and I think he was more willing to trust me as well. I think the jumping has really helped our relationship and our bond-in-the-face-of-adversity. It was a more pleasant experience than previous hacks and it was nice to do something different for once, so I think we’ll hack more this summer than last.

Back on the yard that sun was beating down … so I commandeered the hose. Time to get him properly clean!

As I was aware it wasn’t that hot and I was washing him in cold water I wanted to be as fast as I could. To that end I tried three new tactics. 1) wash the back end, rinse and scrape off and then wash the front end, so the back end can be drying while the front is washed. 2) Dampen the horse with a little water, then squirt on a very weak solution of shampoo and lather before rinsing with the hose, so he’s only soaked in the really cold water at the rinse stage, just before getting scraped off. 3) Provide a swede to distract horse during the process.

I have to say that I will employ all of these methods again. I ended up with a clean dry horse much quicker than on previous attempts. As always though, washing his mane was a battle. And unfortunately there was a point at which he tried to get away from the hose by stepping into me. I simultaneously yelled, thumped him and fell on his shoulder as my toe was ground under his hoof. After assuring myself it wasn’t broken and assuring the concerned bystanders that I’d survive, we finished the job – me grimly and he with a penitent attitude that permitted me to finish rinsing the mane in relative ease before hobbling around walking him in the sun to dry. As I put him away I realised my flies were wide open, and must have been ever since I went to the toilet before the hack, about 3 hours earlier! Doh!

I suspect I may lose the big toenail from the stomped foot but it could have been worse. I have been generous with the ice, painkillers and elevation which has helped.

In the afternoon Mr S and I went for a drive to a garden centre which, it transpired, has been knocked down. But we saw signs for a Craft Centre and followed those to a place with a handful of shops, including a garden centre, an antiques shop and a saddlery. Mr S was not only patient, he encouraged me to get items I was dithering over. In addition to the spare headcollar and lead rope we needed, I also got a very cheap but very comfortable pair of riding boots (they’re brown, but for that price I could overlook it), a bag of horse treats and, indulgence of indulgences, the very Shires raincoat I’ve admired in the catalogues but thought I’d not be able to justify (it was reduced :-) ). We were lucky enough to turn up on their one-day sale. Hurray!

So although I’m limping heavily and managed to show half of the county my underwear before I realised my jodhpurs were undone, I rose to the challenges in my jump lesson, had the best hack we’ve enjoyed so far, found a new horse supplies shop that’s open on Sundays (unlike my regular one) and am the proud owner of new boots and a new raincoat! Rather a good weekend all told.

Shires raincoat. Mine is black or perhaps very dark navy. There are straps to keep it over your legs when riding. I am very (over) excited by it!

Shires raincoat. Mine is black or perhaps very dark navy. There are straps to keep it over your legs when riding. I am very (over) excited by it!

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