Lee Pearson and the inoffensive sandwich

The night before the Lee Pearson lesson we noticed that Nutmeg was washing his tummy with too much interest.



On inspection he had some really concerning open wounds. It looked to me like he’d gone over a fence with a nail in and got caught and one in particular looked deep. It didn’t justify an emergency vet call out, but it did need checking by a professional sooner rather than later. But of course it was Friday night and the vets was closed for the night. They do open 9-12 on a Saturday morning, but it is by appointment and obviously we  didn’t have one. The surgery opens at 9.00 and I needed to get to the stables in good time to prepare myself and Drifter for the lesson with Lee at 11.30.

Which is how I came to be dressed in my riding gear, with a cat in a crate, waiting on the doorstep for the vets to open, begging them to see me in the next hour because I had to get to a lesson with a paralympian! I was prepared to take Nutmeg with me to the stables if I had to, to let me wait a little longer for the vet.

The receptionist said that they were pretty much booked up, but that as the vet working was the quick one, there should be a chance at some point. I settled in for a wait, distracted by a boisterous labrador who was so excited by everything and his owners didn’t have any real control over him. Luckily, the second appointment of the day didn’t turn up and we were seen much quicker than I’d dared to hope.

The vet provided pain-killers, antibiotics and a cone collar, the latter to be used at our discretion! He didn’t seem too worried by the injuries themselves, but said that they were almost certainly bites from another cat. We were aware that there are new cats in the area and that there were serious tensions, but not that things were this bad. Hopefully now Nutmeg’s lost this round he’ll back off next time.

I had plenty of time to drop him back home and get out to the stables. Hurray!

As I walked onto the yard, two members of staff were discussing sandwiches. One demanded of me to tell them what an offensive sandwich would be. Thoughts swam through my head, and I almost said “Sardine and jam”, which I think would fit the bill, but taking the question seriously and thinking about what people are offended by, the answer I came up with was, “A penis sandwich would be offensive.”

One nearly fell in her muck wheelbarrow laughing.

Once they’d recovered they explained they were really trying to establish what would be an inoffensive sandwich, but they disagreed over what would constitute an offensive one, for comparison. They did agree that a penis sandwich would definitely not be inoffensive although they found my thought processes rather surprising.

I went to groom, hot cloth, swipe the saddle over (the time for a proper cleaning there was spent on a vet trip) and tack up.

The rain was torrential but it was boiling, so the grooming and tacking up was characterised by a great deal of putting my coat on to fetch something from the tack room and then taking it off again as soon as I stepped into the stable. Thank heaven they always give Lee the indoor school to teach in.

We were tacked up just in time. I put my raincoat back on and his big waterproof turnout over the saddle and we went round for the lesson. Lee was running to time so I went straight in, which was very welcome!

I got linked up with the earpiece so I would be able to hear Lee and hopped on. Drifter was in quite a cooperative mood and as we warmed up started going reasonably round, by our standards, which was handy. Lee asked for a quick update, and on hearing about my rejection of jumping shared that he doesn’t jump for pretty much the same reasons. It doesn’t appeal and, he said, “I can’t see a stride to save my life.” Well I take that with a pinch of salt 😉 But once again it’s really nice to be reminded that there are plenty of “real riders” who choose not to jump.

We showed our paces, and Lee said that once again we’d be focussing on canter, because that seemed to be our biggest problem.

The plan was to get from the fast scramble-canter with his head in the air to something softer and more manageable. The key to this? Transitions and lots of them. While I’ve got into the habit of doing lots of trot-walk, walk-trot transitions in quick successions I’ve never done quick canter transitions. Someone early on in our canter story told us he wasn’t the kind to be able to go quickly back into canter after he’d come into trot and I accepted that, and didn’t try canter – trot – canter very often, but with Lee quick transitions between canter and trot were exactly what we did. I realise now that if he finds a thing hard that’s exactly what we should work on, so that person wasn’t being helpful. I think it probably came from the riding school mentality of trying to improve just the rider rather than the horse or the partnership.

Anyway, we came onto a 20m circle and stayed on it while doing lots of quick transitions between canter and trot. At first every upward transition to canter took us from a submissive “dressage-pony” outline to a giraffe impression, but as we kept working we a few transitions where it was like we hardly changed between the two. That was amazing and I’ve never felt that on any horse before.

Lee explained that although Drifter’s physically much stronger than he was and so doing much better in canter, he’s still a bit weak and underconfident about it, so he goes really fast to keep going and drops back to trot if I don’t let him go really fast. Lee said that lots of horses are insecure about the transition but fine about the canter itself but D’s insecure about both. For this reason the more we practice the transition the more he learns that it’s not a big deal and he can do it, while strengthening the muscles to make it easier in future. I realise as l write this that I am also a little less confident than I would like about canter transitions so practicing loads will be good for me too.

As we were working on the transitions the door opened and in came one of the staff members from the sandwich conversation, bearing a plate. “I’ve bought you an inoffensive sandwich,” she declared and both she and I burst out laughing, which did little for the quality of my transitions, I have to say. I had no idea that the conversation earlier had been about what sandwich they should buy for Lee!

Of course unusual hilarity about a sandwich must be explained, so she filled him in as I cantered about still laughing. When he heard about the penis sandwich conversation he declared that he didn’t want the cheese and ham she offered, could she take it away and get him a penis sandwich instead!?

As she couldn’t actually fulfil this order he did accept the ham and cheese inoffensive sandwich instead, and we got back to work.

Towards the end of the lesson we even did some counter flexion in canter – something it would never have occurred to me to try and I wouldn’t have thought we could do. The purpose of this was to encourage D to let me have his head and neck in different positions that his usual “Oh **** I’m cantering!” giraffe position.

Another point he made was that I’ve got to stop letting D get away with tossing his head when he doesn’t like what I’ve asked him to do. He mentioned it last time as well but I’ve not really made much progress there. Must try harder.

By the time we finished we were dripping with sweat, but at least it had finished raining.

I’m delighted with the progress we made with the transitions. Like most (all?) of our previous lessons with Lee we came out and I realised I’d done things I didn’t know I/we could do. We had some stunning canter transitions that I just didn’t think we were capable of and some really nice bits of canter between them. We have loads to work on, but plenty achieved and plenty to be proud of. I certainly hope we’ll be having another Lee lesson in another couple of months and I can’t wait!

The New Plan begins (warning to the non-horsey, this one is quite jargony!)

Saturday was my first lesson of the New Plan for Drifter, me and my instructor. (I need catchier names for both the Plan and the three of us).

But before the lesson I discovered that the two little sore bits on one leg (which I’d noticed a few days ago and hoped were just a scuff from the other hoof) did not seem to be healing. Mud fever? Yep. It’s only a tiny bit, so we’ll keep an eye on it and treat with nothing more aggressive than Sudocreme and use Vaseline as a barrier when he goes out in the field. But of course the whole yard has offered their own opinions on “the only treatment that works” and few are pleased when I don’t take their advice. The advice of the staff members who I most respect was to follow this noninvasive course of action. It also sits well with my own feelings on the matter. If it gets worse, there’ll be plenty of time to try scrubs, scab-picking, mixing potions and whatever else then. If you don’t hear more  in future posts about this please assume that his leg did not drop off and he’s doing fine. I hope that’s not jinxing us! But even if his leg does fall off it’s the weak one that he’s not so keen on using anyway, so he’s got a head start on managing around without it. 😉 . He seems pretty much unbothered by this tiny bit of mud fever at present, so I shall follow his lead and remain calm too.

So, the first lesson. As the instructor was feeling under confident about her abilities she requested the one-off support of the office manager, formerly a dressage rider and very knowledgeable instructor. She got on and he arrived to help for a bit.

It was really good. I stood with him in the middle of the school while my instructor rode around us and he pretty much gave her a little lesson. There were quite a few occasions where he said to her exactly what she’d usually say to me and I could see her find it hard when I find it hard, if that makes sense. And that made me feel better that it’s not just me that finds it hard. I knew what she was feeling from him, and for once I could see it from the ground too. They tried a slightly  larger circle in counter flexion and he couldn’t really do it, but I was able to see it from the ground and see a) it wasn’t just me making it hard for him b) how he moves when he does it for a stride and how he moves when he doesn’t.

She cantered him on the right rein, although not on the first attempt.

He did get worked up about it. When I got on for my lesson the first few minutes were spent calming him down again. An interesting point that the manager made to my instructor was that you can’t put your leg on when he’s rushing. I know that sounds obvious, but I’ve been told to keep my leg on even when he’s rushing. It didn’t work, but I hadn’t really processed that it doesn’t – I just assumed I was doing it wrong. He needs to be calm(ish) and steady before leg aids can do any good.

I find I can’t really describe what was good about the session, but it was great. In my part of the lesson I didn’t need to spend it all building towards some failed attempts at cantering on the right rein because my instructor already did that bit for me. I did a little bit of counter flexion and then we moved on to other things. We tried some leg yielding as well. I have to say I’ve tried a bit of leg yielding on my own, but didn’t know if I was doing it right – this was the first time we’d done it in a lesson. If there had been time I would have liked to do some pole work, but it was getting a bit late to get the poles out, so we’ll do that next time.

On Monday night I rode on my own and tried working the counterflexion for only a few strides at a time, for example going round the corners of the school in counterflexion and straight the rest of the way. It’s difficult to get the balance between asking for too much and asking for too little. He didn’t sweat much during the session but it was quite cold and when I got home I ached, so I think I did work us hard, just not in the sweaty-out-of-breath kind of hard. I worked on asking for different things (bend, transitions, circles) but on keeping him calm and listening all the time. If I asked for something that made him rush I stopped and brought him back to me before trying again. I hope this won’t train him that he can escape work by rushing – the idea is to keep him in a responsive state at all times. A few posts ago I noticed how he got unbalanced and rushed when we tried to run the walk-trot test – well that’s the kind of thing I’m trying to avoid with this way of working. I want to work at him doing the basics without getting worked up. I know for him a turn onto the centre line can be quite difficult, but really it’s nothing for him to get worried about. I want to get him to the point where he can do something he finds difficult and still trust me and keep his rhythm.

I guess I’m starting to learn about the pyramid of dressage 😉 Work rhythm first, then suppleness. I guess I should have already know that, but there’s a big difference between the theory of dressage and the actuality of horse owning. I have to say that I used to think the pyramid was only for people who wanted to get their horse to the top, or at least compete to a reasonable level, but I didn’t realise how much I’d have to train my horse in order to get to that goal of cantering in two directions. It might not be Prix St Georges, but we still need to sort out rhythm and suppleness before we can sort out straightness. In some ways that makes me sigh, but in others it feels good to say “I can’t fuss about that now, I need to get other things in order.”

So I’ve been thinking about the little steps I can take towards my goals, and ways of working for progress rather than beating my head against things we can’t do.

I’ve been making notes. How do we get from here to there? What do I want to work on and how do I progress it? If you can add any more ideas to the below please comment.

Rhythm: Work on things that are within his ability and don’t let him rush. We can’t work in canter and he doesn’t usually rush in walk, so we’ll work a lot in trot, with circles, centre lines, shallow loops and changes of flexion only to the point that he can manage without losing his rhythm. I’d rather lose steering than rhythm. While keeping this, try introducing some of the below.

Counter flexion: First work in straight lines bending first one way then the other > progress to counterflexing around corners > then large circles bending first one way then the other > large circles in counterflexion > small circles in counterflexion > small circles in counterflexion with a transition up to canter.

Strength of weak leg: Counter flexion as above; Pessoa lungeing; Trotting poles; Transitions. If we had any hills I’d put hill work in here, but we’re a bit challenged in that department!

Improvement of rider: Sitting trot; jump position/light seat; all of the above!

Last night was our lunging night and I was pleasantly surprised to see how much better he’s doing in the pessoa now. I can really see him bringing the weak leg further under himself, and finding it easier to do so. This is a great improvement from when we got it and he clearly struggled to get that leg under him at all. That is faster progress than I expected (although probably more weeks have passed than I realise) and it’s great to see something getting easier for him. Looks like we’re on the right track!

Another ride on the emotional rollercoaster anyone?

So … I left the last post on a high note, feeling like I was getting somewhere, did I? But I’ve said it time and time again, riding is a constant rollercoaster and what goes up usually comes down, doesn’t it. This week I rode Oblivion, metaphorically speaking.

Literally speaking I rode Drifter. Or tried to.

This is not my horse. This is a visual representation of my emotion state. (Oblivion, Alton Towers)

This is not my horse. This is a visual representation of my emotion state. (Oblivion, Alton Towers)

You see, we had a lesson.

Every so often the powers that be at the stables get some well-known or otherwise reputable member of the riding community to come and teach a day/evening of lessons at our yard. This time it was a dressage line judge, who they’d had before and lots of people were raving about. The info we were given was that he’d teach all levels, from walk-trot upwards. Great. So we booked in for a lesson with him on Wednesday.

It is only fair to say that I was tired and not at my best before I even got to the stables, but I was relaxed and expecting to enjoy it. The evening was running late, but I wasn’t fussed and when we entered the school I introduced us, explained how long I’d had him, how long I’d been riding and our issue with the weak right hind quarter that prevents him from cantering on the right rein properly.

He asked me to ride around him in a 20 m circle spiralling in to 10 m and out again. This is a challenge on a horse that finds circles very hard. This is a challenge for a horse that finds circles very hard. Then he had us try it with counterflexion (i.e. horse looks to the outside of the circle not around the circle, and so isn’t looking where it’s going). And it became absolutely impossible for both of us.

I have to say that had he explained how to ride counterflexion rather than just assuming I’d done it before I might have done better. After we’d been trying for what seemed like forever he said I seemed to be twisting against the flexion of the horse. Yes I was because that’s how I’ve been told to ride a circle – looking around it, hips and shoulders following where I’m looking. Apparently this is wrong for counterflexion and I was supposed to look and point myself outside of the circle as well as pointing him to look outside. Once he’d explained that it got slightly less impossible, but degrees of impossibility are still pretty impossible, so it didn’t help that much. Still, it’s good to know 😉 . I’m so drilled in the “look round the circle, let your hips and shoulders follow” that the idea it was possible to ride a circle without that drill was almost shocking to me.

I would hazard a guess that the rider was not the only one who’d never done a 10 m circle with counterflexion before. In fact we still haven’t done one, or even a quarter of one, although we did manage the odd stride here and there I think. Drifter just couldn’t do it. He tried. He always tries. But it’s so hard for him, so he falls out of the circle and we end up going large. “Keep him on the 10 m circle” says the instructor, apparently under the impression that I can do something about the fact that I’m now at the opposite end of the school from where I am trying to be. I can’t. I have not built enough riding specific muscle to be able to stop 1/2 ton of animal who is doing his best but can’t stay on the circle. Eventually I had to tell the instructor I couldn’t carry on without resting my arms. I’d already carried on well beyond the point of burning agony and was getting worse and worse at stopping him running off. When he’s finding things hard he trots faster and I end up in a tug of war with him. And lose. We had time for another little go after my rest, and we did better for it, but it was still so far outside either of our abilities.

The point of all of this is that by doing the small circle in counterflexion a horse has to use the inside hind, so by doing it on the right rein he has to use the right hind. (Which it admirably demonstrated that he can’t. But then I knew that.) If while he’s doing that he is then asked for the canter he’s already using that right hind so cannot avoid using it to push off onto the correct canter lead.

I think this guy assumed he was physically capable of doing the trot circle in counterflexion. Perhaps he is. But not without a rider who can make him do it.

1) I cannot make him. I am not strong enough.

2) If this obedient, submissive horse is putting up that much fight should he be made to do it? There is a difference between a personal trainer who pushes you through pain but knows when to stop and a bully who makes you do something that hurts and doesn’t care. I do feel that he is weak enough at this that it probably is painful to work the muscles. When I made serious postural changes in myself many muscle groups were very painful until they adjusted to my weight. When retraining this muscle/group in him I not only expect him to carry his own weight but mine too. We’re all mammals. I can’t believe that this would be a pain-free experience for him just because people expect horses to be able to do it. And for that reason I would be highly reluctant to put someone on his back who would push him too hard.

3) I felt he and I were both pushed too hard in this session. And I should have stopped it. Not because my arms were in agony, but because it was too much for him. But I was prey to the “he’s a professional he knows what he’s doing” and “I am lowly and want to please” thoughts. Also the “I am tough and can take this and must keep up appearances” which is both untrue and pointless.

The 30 minute session ended and he was the sweatiest horse I have ever seen in my life. And I’ve really made him sweat before. One of the teens saw us afterwards and she’d never seen anything like it either. We had to get out of the indoor school for the next lesson to go in so I took him to the outdoor school to walk him to dry off. As we walked and walked I sobbed on his back.

Partly because I was so drained. Partly because I had nothing left in the tank for the rest of the week. Partly because I felt bad about how I’d worked him/let us be worked. But mainly because I’d seen how very very hard it was for him to use that hind quarter. Because I’d seen how much further away we were from that exalted destination of a reliable canter on that rein. Because I saw that I can’t school him on that myself.

Eventually we stopped walking. He was still sweaty under the tack but dry on the exposed portions and I worried that he would get cold. So I moved my sobbing to the stable for a bit. Another milestone reached in our relationship – he will now let me cry on his shoulder. When I tried this last winter and spring he would step away from me, but now stands placidly. When I got tired of standing I sat in the corner and cried there for another substantial chunk of time. Around this point I checked my phone and found a message from Mr S saying he couldn’t find one of the cats* but had had to go out anyway. Which made me feel so much better. Not.

By the time I got home the cat was located and Mr S was conveniently free to be supportive. I told him I needed serious help getting D working properly. He gave me a shoulder to cry on and permission to spend more money on it (from an account that is not the horse account).

I had a bath and food and felt a bit more normal.

On Thursday I got up not knowing how I’d last the day at work and riding (D had no turnout so even though he deserved a day off having me on his back, I’d have to ride anyway.) The tearfulness was back. At everything. But I managed to keep on the right side of tears, feeling the prickle but not letting them fall.

I survived the day’s work, thinking about the horse issues intermittently. By the end of the day I’d decided to go and ask advice at the stables, either from the office manager or the owner. I wanted to sort out a plan, with structured lessons & schooling to get this working. But also I needed someone to listen. I turned up in the office. Both the office manager and the owner were there but so were other people, so I started somewhat awkwardly.

I mostly talked to the manager about the possibility of merging schooling & lessons into one. By this I mean that I’d book a lesson but it would be the instructor that would ride him first, get him going nicely and work him at the things I’d struggle with, during which time I would be watching, learning, even videoing, and then I’d get on and have my lesson. Of course the tears were back during this, but in a dripping-not-sobbing way, which at least left me still able to communicate. Both manager and owner agreed this would be possible, although they didn’t want to commit to any price structure for this just yet because the lesson pricing and availability will be changing from the beginning of Dec, so we have yet to hash out exactly what I can afford/fit into their week and mine. They also suggested that I’d have to clear it with my instructor, which I agreed of course, but suspected she’d be OK with it. The owner shared that she had also had a lesson the previous night and assured me that she also had found it hard and frustrating and agreed a structured plan was the way forward for me.

So I left the office feeling a bit more positive on one front but still feeling like I needed to let it all out to someone. By happy accident lady-with-a-pony was just arriving and didn’t mind listening to me for a bit. She’s also been feeling a bit down and isolated so knew exactly where I was coming from, which was just what I needed. I’d confided that I was worried about losing what limited canter skills I have myself, and she offered the use of her pony one day, which was really nice. He’s ex-riding school and knows what he’s doing. He might do it begrudgingly, but he can certainly canter in two directions!

She went off to ride and I ambushed my instructor by waiting outside her lesson until she was done and dragging her off to the relative warmth of D’s stable for a chat. She’s not confident in her (excellent) riding abilities so needed persuading that it is her I want doing this, but once I’d got her convinced I didn’t want anyone but her, she agreed. She also told me that I shouldn’t think less of myself for not being able to school him in this myself. She told me to stop comparing myself to the others on the yard who have horses that just do everything for them. It’s easy, she said, to look pretty on a horse that can already do everything. Put them on my horse and she thought they’d be in the same place as me. This was a revelation to me and helped me feel a lot better. As did the hug that came with it. Did I forget to mention I was crying again? Anyway, I feel like she, D & me (ungrammatical but it rhymes) are a team now. The best thing she said to me was that I don’t just try to ride my horse, I try to understand him. She seemed to think it was unusual that I’ve identified his problem and am looking for ways to build him up and understand how he moves and why he moves that way and what I can do about it. It’s sad if that is unusual. But even in my short horse experience I’ve come across people selling horse after horse on because it didn’t perform for them rather than looking to their own riding or what their horse needs from them, so perhaps it is unusual. I have to say that my horse helps himself. He may have only 3 strong legs, but he’s the sweetest horse on the yard (last week was an exception!). And I don’t just say that as an owner – all the staff adore him. In a way I can understand someone wanting to get rid of him and buy a horse that will canter both ways without all this, but he’s such a nice guy, who tries and tries. But someone sold him to the dealer that sold him to me…**

So I felt a lot better for having had this conversation with my instructor. I went out to see pony-lady finish riding to tell her how it went and, unfortunately she had a fall. I wasn’t watching but it was a sideways spook and suddenly there was no pony under her. She got up fine and was persuaded to get back on and walk him round a bit before calling it a day (although she was short on time). I continued to wait for her (now she needed the moral support as well as I) and in the interim spoke to the office manager who was also there, letting him know the instructor was fine with the combined schooling/lesson idea. He also said some kind and supportive things which I appreciated particularly because of the quiet and understated way he said them.

Pony-lady & went back to her stable, consoled each other briefly and then I finally started to groom and tack up, having been on the yard for 2 hours and so far done nothing but talk! I didn’t really want to ride, but as it was really only to stretch his legs I wasn’t going to put any pressure on either of us to work to the best of our ability. But when I got back in the saddle it felt good. I let him swing along with his big walk on the buckle of the reins and just went with it. I asked for a little contact … and let him out again. Did a circle … and went large again. I even asked for a bit of counterflexion occasionally, but only for a few strides. We pottered around. It was nice. I made no demands of him – it was just about getting his legs moving. I didn’t cry. After a bit we stopped. It was all we needed from the day’s ride.

On Saturday we have a lesson. I’ll ask the instructor to get on first and we’ll see where we get to. The rollercoaster is no longer at the bottom of the drop to Oblivion. I’m exhausted but it’s Friday tomorrow and I’ll probably get through it. Maybe with a few fewer tears? I hope so.

While I usually feel that tears on the yard are best kept to one’s own stable (unless you’ve fallen or been seriously hurt), the reaction to my visible upset today has showed me that I have a lot more support on the yard than I sometimes feel I have.
*As soon as we get home the cats are shut in for the night. It was assumed on this occasion that one had managed to follow me out when I left for the stables. Not so. Said cat turned up in the bathroom, having got behind the bath panel and been hiding there when the bathroom was checked by Mr S looking for him. When there were apparently no cats there he shut the door behind him. While we were both out the cat tried to leave and, finding the door shut, had completely taken up the carpet by the door in his attempts to dig his way out, so when he was found the carpet blocked the door from opening and he still couldn’t get out without considerable effort on Mr S’s part. With hindsight this would have been a good cat-shaming picture. The carpet is now returned to its usual position but not in quite the original condition!
**I’d like to mention that when I rode him before I bought him he did canter on both reins. I imagine he’d been schooled and schooled on it prior to sale so someone would buy him and then when that schooling was stopped he reverted to struggling again. Caveat emptor. There’s not exactly any way I could have guessed.