Back on the rollercoaster. A long post.

Unfortunately Drifter still hasn’t seen the physio. That’s a story I’m not going into. While we wait, we’ve carried on with gentle rides where I ask very gradually to see what he can give me while we keep him moving to avoid stiffness. We went for a lovely in-hand walk at the weekend as well, this time going through the village.

The Village Hack, as it is known, is shorter than The Belfry (which is the way I usually go) but I very rarely do it because I hate the parked cars by the village shop, which go around the corner with a nasty blind bend, so everyone is on the same side of the road with blind corners and it does not make me happy. I hate being a vehicle there, whether I’m in my car or on my horse. Apparently though, I’m absolutely fine with being a pedestrian. It’s really odd, but going through that part of the route I felt fine as a pedestrian with a horse in hand, striding down the middle of the only part of road available. As we carried on through the residential bit afterwards I felt so proud to be out in the sunshine with my shiny, beautiful and obedient horse. I never feel proud when I’m hacking. I feel scared and embarrassed and somehow in the way, even when there are no other road users in sight. It was really nice to be out enjoying the sights and sounds and sunshine with my shiny horse-boy for company.

But I had to get back on the next day to get him to work a little. After a busy Monday at work I was not in the mood for much riding – I planned to hop on, do a very little work and hop off again. Hah. Fate heard me again.

After a quick groom and tack up, I mounted near the H/C corner and we walked along the short side towards the C/M corner. This walk was tight and uncomfortable. Drifter was definitely not happy, but perhaps he’d relax into it? We reached the C/M corner and instead of turning around it to proceed, he stopped. I nudged him and he bucked. And bucked. And bucked. Not with any great force, but with a consistent insistence. If I asked him to come out of the corner, which was the only way to go, he bucked. I wanted to get off, but the fence was there on our left hand. I couldn’t get down unless he came out of the corner and he seemed quite firm that he did not want to come out of the corner. So I held onto the saddle, asked and he bucked his little bucks of refusal. I didn’t feel in any danger of coming off, unless he was going to ramp it up a lot more, but it was not a great situation. I could hear a staff member within shouting distance so I asked her to bring lunge line and whip (deja vu anyone?) so if I managed to get off I’d be able to assess him from the ground.

For some reason, this request seemed to be the trigger he needed to get out of the corner. He set off suddenly in a panicky trot, interspersed with a few tiny bucks. I was not letting go of the saddle, because I had no idea what was going to come next and sat in to wait untill he stopped, doing little in the way of asking for anything apart from suggesting he come away from the fence. Eventually we negotiated a stop away from the fence and I got off.

Lunging gear arrived, I ran up the stirrups, swapped the reins for the line and started lunging on the left rein; he was stiff but not awful and not bucking. So I switched him over to the right rein. Head up, he squealed and immediately went into “running away trot.” So I had a horse that couldn’t bend/turn right, but could manage left. That explained why we got stuck in the corner.

What could I do now? I knew I was supposed to keep him in ridden work, but I was not happy to get back on a horse that was obviously only able to turn in one direction. I took him out of the school to find someone for advice.

A staff member who I don’t know that well suggested I trot him up for her and then suggested the saddle might be a problem. “Oh no”, I said confidently, “It’s only two and a half weeks since we had [the saddle fitter] out.” But as I spoke her hands were under the saddle, finding a tightness over, (did you guess it?), the right shoulder.

I felt really stupid for not finding that myself, and have given myself a sharp talking to about it. I do trust my saddle fitter. I do believe she is very good at her job and I will still use her again. I also believe even the best of us make mistakes or have off days, and I think this is what happened here.I do not believe that in less than three weeks he put on much weight, particularly as I reduced his food two weeks ago and the grass in their field is eaten so short there’s virtually nothing there.

I took the saddle off. I lunged him in each direction. He was a different horse. He still didn’t move brilliantly (but we know he’s sore at the back) but he was so much calmer. In fact, he didn’t want to move. When I tried lunging in the saddle he wasn’t interested in walking because he needed to run away. Without the saddle he just wasn’t interested in moving at all, but in a lazy way that was far more positive than the panicky trotting.

So, the saddle. Choirs of angels sang the praises of the Bates adjustable air flocking system. I knew that when we saw the saddle fitter she’d inserted a pair of inserts and I knew how to get them out again. Once I had tracked down a suitable screwdriver to borrow from the yard (I keep meaning to buy one to keep with my stuff in the tack room but it hasn’t happened yet) I opened it up and had a look. She’d put in 8mm inserts. Rather than just whipping those out I switched them over for some 4 mm ones we’d used before so the saddle would be that little bit wider at the front pads. I put everything back together and tried it on him. It looked good and felt good.

I got back on. Once he got over his initial expectation of discomfort Drifter relaxed. What a relief. We were back to just having issues at the back-end, which we know about and can deal with. We had a decent-ish ride. I am supposed to try for all three gaits, so we had a little canter in each direction, even though it’s rather unbalanced and unpleasant to ride. Unfortunately on the left rein he had a little stumble. It wasn’t enough for either of us to fall, but after it he was reluctant to do much more work (he was happy to slob around on a loose rein, but resisted my shortening it, which is not like him), so I suspect he may have some soreness from the stumble now as well. Argh! To be honest though I’d had more than enough myself, so we just wandered around on the long rein for a bit so he could stretch everything out.

I’m used to horse owning being a rollercoaster, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been up and down so much in one evening!

The next he was turned out but not ridden. When I got on the day after that he felt really weird. I felt like his right hip was really coming up and forwards under me but the left side wasn’t moving much. I walked for a bit to see if it would go away, and then got off. In hand he was stiff, particularly turning, but trotted up sound. Actually I think he hides it better in a trot up than in a walk, but all advice was to get back on and take it easy, which I did, and the oddness did reduce over the ride as he moved through the stiffness. I know that when the physio comes she will wave her magic wand and he’ll be back to feeling fabulous, but the waiting is not easy. Hopefully next week…

I suppose the silver lining is that this is stopping me from overdoing it in the saddle. Meh. The chance would be a fine thing!

In which Drifter remembers the difference between over and around

So we had our first private jump lesson with the yard owner…

Drifter was not in the mood.

In the school before the lesson as I did the pre-mounting tightening and checks he had a grumpy demeanor and the yard owner/instructor asked what his problem was. His problem was that it was half-past-dinner and because of the lesson he hadn’t been fed yet. Neither me nor my horse are at our best at half-past-dinner if we haven’t been fed. As I often end up riding at this time and feeding him late I barely registered it, so I was interested that she did – she’s very tuned in. She doesn’t know him, and he wasn’t misbehaving (he was standing still without needing to be held as I took off my jacket and his rug) but she still picked up on it enough to ask what the issue was.

Up I got and off we went. The warm up went well and I got a lot of useful position advice, etc. After a time we were ready to try a jump. I was told to come in trot … and D decided we would go around the jump to the left.

Again, shorter reins, more impulsion.

We went around to the left.

Again, with instructor standing to left of jump.

We went around to the right.

Again, and mean it.

Back round to the left.

Repeat until instructor loses patience with naughty horse.

I get off.

She gets on.

Let battle commence!

Instructor demands obedience. Grumpy horse says no.

Instructor demands carrying himself properly. Snorty-cross-pony says no.

Instructor demands he stop leaning on the left rein. No, no, no.

They fight it out a few times round the school… *

Until he finally realises it is going to be easier to submit. Suddenly he is going like a fine dressage cob – in an outline on the bit without even the slightest tension on the reins. Pretty pony!** Once this has happened on both reins, she takes him over the jump a few times. Suddenly he has remembered which choice he’s supposed to make between over and around.

She gets off, I get on.

And we go over instead of around. It was not always pretty, but it was always over rather than around.

I did feel that he had shown me up, rather, but it will be years before I’m able to fight with him like that. I don’t have the strength and I don’t have the experience. It was interesting to see that he knows full well how to carry himself when he is properly reminded. I wondered previously if his dressage training might have been rather minimal but recently I’ve suspected he knows more than he’s letting on (I’m pretty sure the reversing he tried when I wanted a halt the other day was a proper rein-back rather than random walking backwards). It’s nice to know he has more potential than I feared but embarrassing to find out how little of it I’m capable of bringing out in him.

l suppose I’m feeling quite mixed emotions about the lesson. On the one hand we have the negatives that l couldn’t convince him to go over in the first place and I’ve never got him going anything like as well as that; on the other the positives that we probably almost doubled the number of times I’ve ever jumped, I didn’t fall off, he is obviously very capable & I got some good position tips.

That’s more positives than negatives. So why do I not feel happy? I think I’m disappointed that I’ve made so much progress recently but now feel like it was a false peak – I though once I got us reliably cantering in 2 directions I’d be standing on top of the world. But apparently this is just a foothill and the mountain I hadn’t seen before is blocking out the sun. Ignorance was bliss and now I feel cheated.

It’s just paranoia but I can’t help wondering if the mountain climbers are sniggering down at me and my tiny hill. Maybe they are, but they are of no significance anyway.

So how am I going to approach the mountain? I need to expect more of him. Quite what I do if I don’t get it I’m not sure yet, but expecting more will be a good place to start.

And while I’m doing it, I can still canter around on my hill-top in two directions. That is not to be snorted at. And the good thing about a metaphorical mountain range is that it’s OK to be in several places at once.

*A battle of wills and strength, but not of violence. There was no whip or spurs, and no bucking or rearing. Not that any of these would necessary be violent, but I hope you know what I mean.

**Note to self: that pretty picture would look even better if his mane was pulled more evenly. Take more length off towards the poll, but the rest is looking good.

In which Drifter has issues

So the snow went away, we got use of the outdoor schools back and I thought we were going to make some progress with ridden work now that we could focus properly on our own partnership rather than worrying about sharing a small school and whether I’d be able to get home safely after the ride.

I think I should have known – that’s not the way things go with horses.

Investigating the camera

Investigating the camera

We got back into the big outdoor school, on our own, with all that lovely space to work in, but Drifter was being difficult. I’d finally cleaned my tack, so my first thought was that maybe I’d made a mistake putting the bridle back together with something twisted or asymmetric, so I dismounted and had a good look. All fine. I got back on and thought perhaps he was just a) being lazy because he’d got used to not working too hard or b) testing his rider, which was a phase of ownership I’d been prepared for. He was reluctant to move and more reluctant than usual to turn or take any “steering” aids at all. I pushed him on, but it was not a rewarding ride. It seemed like he might have decided that he was scared of the bushes and/or shadows, which is not unreasonable in the dark (with floodlights), especially as it was windy, but he wasn’t like this before. I decided I might need to remind him who was in charge and that if it carried on next time I rode I’d try carrying a little whip, which I hadn’t done with him before. I don’t usually ride with one for a few reasons: I think in a new-ish rider it can become a (poor) substitute for learning to give proper leg aids,  I’m not that coordinated using a whip and it’s not nice to use even a little bit of violence if you can get the same result without it. I’m not against carrying a crop, but I prefer not to unless there’s a reason to do so. In this case the reason would be that if he’s not going to respect my aids and I can’t back them up with anything I’ll end up with a horse that knows his rider can’t stop him doing what he wants. Which is dangerous for me and possibly also for him, especially if he decides there’s a tiger in the bushes.

I hoped he was just having an off-day, maybe because he’d not had any turnout because of the snow, but turnout had been reinstated so he’d probably be back to himself next ride. But no, he was worse. He’d had his teeth floated and I was afraid that maybe that was the problem – maybe his mouth had hurt every time we rode before and now they were OK I’d got no control over the front end. That would be terrible – to have only been able to ride him because he was in pain. But for whatever reason I was on a horse that didn’t seem to be respecting my aids, so it was time to try riding with a crop.

For many horses it’s enough to carry the stick. They know it’s there and they know you mean business, so they become very obedient so you don’t have any reason to use it. I’ve also been on one horse who really freaked out because he was fine with crops but terrified of dressage whips, which I happened to have been given by the instructor that day, so I knew that just getting on Drifter holding a whip might evoke a strong reaction and if needs be I’d drop the whip immediately, grab saddle or mane and ride out the reaction as best I could.

He did not freak out, thankfully. He was tense about the sudden appearance of the whip, but not overreacting. It did not really solve our problems though. He was going forward but I was still struggling to keep him on the track. I touched him with the whip a few times (laying it on him, not smacking) and did eventually use one small smack. He went forwards but still wasn’t responding to the aids the whip was supposed to be backing up, so I decided the whip was causing stress but no useful effect to either of us and put it away, cooled him off and put him back in his stable. I knew I was tired and frustrated and resolved to have another go tomorrow. It was still extremely windy, which is likely to affect any horse, and it was late on Friday night, which is likely to affect any human, so we’d write this off and start a-fresh tomorrow.DSCN3670

Tomorrow came and I had the small outdoor school to myself but there was a rider with family spectators in the adjoining school, who found it hilarious that my horse seemed to be refusing to go around corners. He would go around the corners at the C end (because there are scary bushes and it was still really windy) but at the A end he just walked right into the corner through my aids. Only when he was practically against the fence would he let me make him go round the corner. I tried trotting and he trotted nicely until we got near the corner, slowed to a walk (despite me) and did exactly the same. (Cue hilarity from spectators).

There has to be a problem here. I took him to the centre line and dismounted. I walked him in hand trying to get him to bend so I could see what was going on. He tried to nip me. This is a horse that has never looked at me wrong. There definitely has to be a problem beyond the wind, the dark and his general attitude to steering. He has a problem and he needs me to solve it. His teeth have just been done, so that’s ruled out. He’d been shod a few days ago but there was no sign of favouring a foot and I’d felt nothing unusual in his gait. That leaves his back. What do I know about horse backs. Not a lot. But I know I put a saddle on it. I watched the saddle be fitted, so I tried to remember what the fitter had done. Hadn’t she run her hands under it like this checking for tight spots? Oh **** that’s tight! He wasn’t turning because this tightness was stopping him and keeping his body straight.

Being underconfident in my ability to be right about horse stuff I took him back to the yard and got an instructor to have a feel. She agreed I needed to get the saddle fitter out again. So I’ve booked an appointment and will not put the saddle on him again until that appointment.

I felt so guilty. I should have known sooner that something was wrong. I should have carried on looking for issues when I got off and checked the bridle, back in the first paragraph. But as the saddle was professionally fitted less than 6 weeks ago (and I told the fitter he was going to gain weight) it didn’t occur to me that it would be a problem this soon, so I didn’t think to check it earlier.

Hopefully we will be able to sort this out without too much time and expense, but until that saddle fits him it’s back to lunging him for exercise.