Expecting more

I ended yesterday’s post by saying that I was going to expect more from my horse. This morning I rode early enough to have the school to myself and went with that mind-set. I carried a crop. Usually I don’t. I struggle to keep my reins from getting gradually pulled longer and longer and so adding something else to my hand just makes things harder for me. As I never need any extra incentive to get him going forward I have never felt the lack of one. Occasionally I have wanted to discipline him from the saddle and smacked him with my hand on his shoulder, which I found less inconvenient than carrying a stick I’m not going to use 99 rides out of 100. But today I felt that carrying it might back up my attitude that I expected him to work better than he usually does for me. If it got in my way (or he decided to rocket off) I could always drop it and continue as usual.

After a warm up we got to work. With his education session from the instructor fresh in his mind the arguments we had were all within my capacity. With less effort than I expected I had him carrying himself. Keeping him settled and light in both hands was a challenge for me and I’m sure my position suffered for concentrating on his but at least some of the time I managed it. I insisted he was settled and listening at the walk before we trotted and similarly at the trot before we cantered. We didn’t canter that much because we’d worked so hard and well at the other gaits first, but all gaits had some pretty nice moments. Towards the end of the session I realised Mr S had come to watch us. He is not an equestrian but he, without prompting, commented on Drifter’s improved position and said he looked more obedient.

The crop stayed laid over my thigh the whole time. I managed my reins and the whip without difficulty (although I realise now that I kept it always in my right hand rather than swapping it over when we changed the rein).

All in all it was very satisfying. He went much, much better than I’ve ever had him go before. There was a lot to work on but a great deal to be pleased about. At one point I caught sight of us in the mirror and saw again that pretty curve of neck that I saw when the instructor rode. It turns out that expecting more goes a very long way to getting more. The challenge for me will be to maintain that when I ride after a day at work; when I ride in the cold, the dark and the rain; when we’re hungry or tired. But I’ve seen a glimpse of what it could be like and it looked pretty good from where I was sat.

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.

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*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.

Waiting for the physio

Drifter and I have been taking it easy. I’ve recovered from the fall now but his need for some physio is quite noticeable, so I’ve been keeping his exercise light. I don’t really know how to ride him when he’s like this; he needs to move to stop him getting even stiffer but I don’t want to push him when he’s not moving comfortably. If we had off-road hacking I’d take him out, daylight permitting, but while he won’t steer reliably roads are not an option. l can’t lunge him because circles make him even more uncomfortable, so we’re stuck pottering round the school, waiting for the day when she’ll fix him and we can start work again. We are managing still to have a little canter on each rein each session and I’m pleased to say that although he’s really unbalanced and l don’t have much in the way of steering, he’s getting the canter leads correct.

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l won’t be doing the jump class tomorrow, but l am hoping to go and watch. I felt like everybody would think I ought to do it; like it was wrong to miss the class after l fell off. But over the week l realised that nobody else rides my horse, so nobody else gets to make the call as to whether he’s fit to jump or not. Nobody else pays for my lessons (except Mr S of course) so nobody else gets to decide thatĀ I have to have a lesson. I doubt that the lesson would do him any physical harm, but we’re supposed to be doing it for our mutual pleasure, and jumping him when he’s unbalanced and uncomfortable is not our idea of fun, nor is it good for our relationship.

The physio should see him on Monday, so allowing several days of light duties afterwards l am hopeful that we’ll be back in the jump group next week.

Unfortunately on Sunday we’re booked in for a biomechanics session. We’re paid the deposit so I’ll go ahead with that but insist we take it easy. It’s a shame because I’d been really looking forward to showing Russell how much we’ve improved. I’m hopeful that we’ll still be able to get something useful out of it.

Happy Horseday Sparrowgrass!

wpid-20121220_171115.jpgOne year ago today my horse was delivered to me. The picture above is the first picture I took of him. I didn’t know him well enough to try flash photography, hence the blurring, but I also find the blurring quite apt – we didn’t know each other. He was a big blurred black shape to me and I was just another human to him. Now we see each other a lot more clearly. You may also notice the label is still on the rug; I had to try everything I’d bought on him immediately so I had time to get back to the shop before if the rugs didn’t fit, because if they didn’t fit I had nothing to put on him that first December night. Luckily everything fit well enough.

You can see him eating the first feed he had on our yard. He was only given a little feed that first night because it was suspected he might not have been getting any hard food before. He was very skinny. 12 months on he is quite round, and I’m pleased to say that at least some of what he’s put on is muscle.

It took some time for us to connect. We didn’t understand each other. I didn’t understand horse owning. Everything was so much harder than I’d expected, even though he’s a respectful horse with good stable manners. I’d learnt to change rugs, to groom, to tack up, and to ride the school horses but when I put those things together with my horse they became more than the sum of their parts. By the time it came to getting on him I was already exhausted and then he wouldn’t stand at the mounting block or do what I wanted in the saddle. I worried about everything because nothing was habitual and everything was a learning curve and I was responsible for everything.

I didn’t know that tying him up in his stable makes him agitated but he’ll calmly stand still enough for pretty much anything without needing to be tied.

I didn’t know that spending a few pounds on a fluffy girth cover would make girthing less of a battle and so make both of our lives more pleasant.

I didn’t know that he hated his bit and that’s why he wouldn’t halt or put his head down from giraffe-posture.

I didn’t know when to trust my own judgement and when to ask for help.

I didn’t know who to ask for help and whose advice to take with a pinch of salt šŸ˜‰

I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to ride him the way I’d ridden the school horses.

It’s only been in the last month or two that I felt I could ride my horse, in walk and trot, better than I rode the school horses. Since the Lee Pearson lesson I see that I can ride my horse better in canter than I could the school horses. In terms of what I can do, it’s taken me the full year to get back to about where I started from. But in terms of how I do it, I think it’s a world away. This year I haveĀ feel. Last year I didn’t. This year I have some understanding of contact, of rhythm, of how four legs move. I can turn my horse by shifting my weight alone, stick with him through a spook and I’m starting to see how to catch him just before he falls in or out on a circle.

I’ve put together an overview of how the first year went. Looking over the first months it’s no wonder I haven’t found it an easy year. The first three full months were a write off as far as learning to ride him goes, and July was horrendous. I have to say I hope we have better luck in the next 12 months.

Late Dec. 2012: The Purchase & learning to lunge as I have no tack.

Jan. 2013: I have tack, I’m just learning to balance horse & work, getting on board, and then it goes and snows, making absolutely everything virtually impossible to manage.

Feb: The saddle flocking has compacted, so we have issues diagnosing that and then, again, a long period where we can only lunge while it’s sent away to be re-flocked.

March: We have the saddle back but it takes some time to get the noseband back (taken for rebalancing) during which time he mocks my efforts at steering. And then there’s more snow.

April: We finally have a full complement of tack and can really start trying to work under saddle. Which means this is when I really started finding out how difficult he found certain things in the school.

May: We start having adventures. First a little adventure on the track, then out on the lorry for an off-road hack, and in the school with a video with Centaur Biomechanics and our first dressage test. Spring has finally arrived and things start to get a little easier for me.

June: Our first solo hack and the start of summer turnout. He’s out every night so there’s no pressure to ride on any given day because he’s got lots of opportunity to move of his own accord. Everything is so much more relaxed. We change the bit (again) and do another dressage test. We have some lessons on the lunge, during which we confirm just how much difficulty he has getting the correct canter lead (we thought he’d do it right on the lunge, but no such luck). Other livery owners suggest getting the physio to check him over.

July: The physio comes and we get the back much improved, but then D gets conjunctivitis. While work is going ridiculous and my commute is made much worse by epic roadworks, I have a horse that needs eyedrops. And then more eyedrops and more vets visits. He gets quite a lot of schooling because I can’t manage everything and it will help him with that canter lead.

August: I got ill (mostly in self-defence after everything that happened in July) so he gets more schooling. I also spend a few days in Caeiago riding other people’s horses, do our third dressage test and create Drifter-as-Dragon.

September: I have a lot of riding lessons. The month is largely uneventful and I get to concentrate on my riding… until we hear that the riding school is closing and we’ll be moving to another stable. Then I get ill again.

October: We introduce the pessoa-type lungeing aid. I have chiropractic work done. He sees the physio again. I see improvements in both of us. He settles into his new stable.

November: We have a not-so successful lesson with a line-judge and I lose some confidence and don’t believe I’ll be able to help my horse canter.

December: We have an amazing lesson with Lee Pearson and gain loads of confidence in ourselves. We do the Christmas show and join the new beginnerĀ jump group.

It has been a tough year. And there have been times when I wondered if it was something I should be doing. If it was something I could cope with. Horse riding is hard. Horse owning is hard. Balancing them with a full time job is really hard. But this is the path I would choose again. It’s taken a year to settle in together and for me to learn the basics of riding him, but from here we have a strong basis to build on. I don’t know what the future holds for us, but I want to find out. I know there’ll be challenges ahead, but having got through this tough first year I know I can meet those challenges.

I think someone told me before I got him that it takes a year for a horse and rider relationship to form. I understand that deeply now. It takes time. It takes getting grumpy with each other as well as having touching moments. It takes enduring the rain and the cold, the heat and the flies. It takes the good times and the bad, the sweet-smelling and the not so sweet. It takes the special days and the humdrum routine.

Have we changed for knowing each other for a year? Physically there are changes in both of us. But in other ways? I think I’m better for having him in my life, and I can only hope that goes both ways. I try to be the owner he needs me to be. He’s already the horse I need him to be.

The Christmas Show

Between my cold and the left over fear from the jumping the day before, I did not sleep much the night before the show, which was unfortunate.

So I dragged myself out of bed, collated everything I needed for the day and headed to the yard to start grooming and plaiting. Thankfully he was relatively clean. On Thursday he was clipped, this time taking off theĀ hair everywhere except his legs and face (i.e. cheeks and bottom jaw clipped, upper jaw, eyes, ears etc. still woolly). This did make for much easier grooming. Plaiting has got quicker and easier with practice and familiarity with my horse, and did not take nearly as much time and effort as I feared. I was quite aware that my fancy dress costume was not 100% finished and once he was groomed I got onto this. With hindsight I should have tacked up and used that time in warmup, but time managed to escape me and I hadn’t realised how short of time I was. I wanted a 20 minute warmup. I got about 5 minutes if that. We entered the dressage arena feeling rather underprepared. All of our recent workouts have been on the fast and furious side, topped off with the jumping the day before. There was no way I could convert that to a submissive dressage test with only a 5 min warmup.

Overall I felt the test went about as well as normal. That was disappointing as I know I’ve come on so far as a rider and he’s come on as well since we last did this test in August, but considering the preparation and my cold it was understandable. I thought the circles and the turns onto the centre line were better than previously and at one point I actually enjoyed myself, but the serpentine was inaccurate. Submission was lacking, but I hoped we made up for it in impulsion. He did not like the judge’s table at C, but was manageable about it. I wanted the improvements we’ve made to show in our test and in our mark, but they didn’t. For the first time I did the test with no fear that we’d fail to make a transition or do a recognisable movement, and yet it wasn’t really any better executed than the times I’d wondered if we’d even manage to stay in the arena.

No one seemed to know when we’d get the dressage marks, so we went back to the stable to make the transformation from wannabe dressage divas to fancy dress idiots.

I hadn’t been going to do the fancy dress until last week when I saw the following hats for sale.

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Some kind of insane genius made me think of turning my black and white horse into a Christmas Humbug. It would be in keeping with Christmas, but not the same-old reindeer/elf/Father Christmas festive fancy dress. Originality is rewarded, although I’d already decided I wasn’t going all out on this one the way I had on the dragon costume. If we came last, so be it.

My first idea was to tie white bandages around Drifter to make the white stripes, but Poundland didn’t have any old-fashioned bandages and I needed to keep the expenditure down. What they did have were rolls of wide white masking tape, that would be easily removed from fabric. As our black rug is not as black as it might be (it has red trim as well as not being that clean at present) I borrowed a rug from one of our new friends on the yard and humbugged it (with the owner’s permission).

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I had a stripy black jumper for myself and could masking tape some black trousers much as I’d done the rug, but what else?

Also in Poundland (no, they’re not our official sponsors šŸ˜‰ ) I also picked up these girls’ socks.DSCN4529

I was hopeful that I’d be able to cut off the pink bits and stretch them over his hooves to wear on his legs.

But how to get him to wear his hat? I’d thought that I’d be able to split the side seams so that the white band would go across the base of his ears, with an ear coming out of each side seam, but this was too restrictive on the base of his ears. After playing with a few ideas I ended up making the band smaller and having one ear coming out of one side seam. Then, as he was still plaited up after the dressage, I sewed it both to his forelock and the first plait at the top of his neck.

I did manage to get the socks onto his legs. I would really have struggled to do this alone (I’d managed it in a test run but really you need one person to hold up the leg and the other to ease the sock over the hoof) but thankfully Mr S offered his help and did a sterling job. As a finishing touch for D I had some white “curling ribbon” (uncurled) to sew to the plait in his tail and for myself as well (as one of the Bah-Humbug hats) I had a basket containing humbugs, to assist anyone who didn’t get what we were dressed as.

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While there were only 3 entries, there were a lot of people dressed up. Entry no. 1 consisted of 2 of the teens and their horses, with reindeer antlers on the horses, elf outfits on the girls, festive saddle pads and tinsel on the tack. Entry no. 2 was a whole family dressed up, down to the dog. The horse was very dressed up, with long red and green stockings on (matching those worn by the rider and the rider’s mother, and a lot of other things I can’t remember. The rider, who was the girl who fell in yesterday’s jump lesson, was wearing a very cute commercially produced elf outfit, the mother was another elf, as was their little dog, and the father was … Father Christmas!

As their effort far outstripped ours I was very happy for them when they took first place and very pleased to be awarded the pretty blue rosette of second place. Everyone did a victory lap. I felt a little odd being the only one unmounted (it didn’t actually say being mounted was optional this time, but I assumed it was based on the summer show) but we had an in-hand trot round and then got out of the way of the cantering!

My dressage mark, when I received it, was disappointingly low at 56.5. I think this judge marked lower than those I have met before, but as detailed above, I was already of the opinion that we hadn’t made as good a showing as I would have hoped we could, so it wasn’t really a surprise to read the comments, some of which I could have predicted to the letter, others of which surprised me (I thought the circles were pretty round…). There were 3 adult walk-trot competitors, so I was already expecting to come 3rd, and in this I was correct. This is the first time I’ve come 3rd, which filled in the gap in my rosette collection nicely.

The dressage part of the day felt like a bit of a waste of energy. I’ve had so much else going on with my riding of late that I wouldn’t have bothered, save that I paid my entry fee months ago. But I am pleased with Drifter-as-Humbug. Unfortunately the pictures do not do justice to the cuteness of him. Peering over the stable door when we were waiting for fancy-dress time and seeing him eating his hay in hat, humbug rug and stripy socks was the highlight of my day.
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Back to normal

DSCN4355Drifter is a horse again, I am back at work (which has calmed down a lot), and the weather has remembered this is Britain, and returned to rain. Sigh.

But to look at it another way, dragons are impractical, it’s nice to be well enough to work (and have it be calmer) and we have had one of the best summers I can remember.

So we’re back focusing on how to get that right lead canter.

The lesson I had the day before the show really depressed me about my ability to get the canter to the right. I had not realised that this would be a long process. I guess I thought once he’d done it a bit it would just “click” and then even I’d be able to get him to do it.

The next day I lunged him, thinking it was the only way I could get him to practice that canter. I tried to buy a cheaper version of a pessoa lunge aid, but sadly it was out of stock, so we stuck with the side reins. It always amuses me on the lunge how easy it is to get him to accelerate and how difficult to get him to decelerate. You would have thought he’d feel like slowing down and doing less work, but sometimes it takes several circles to change a trot to a walk. The physio had suggested trying lots of transitions on the lunge but when it takes this long to take a trot to a walk, quick repeated transitions are not possible! He cantered nicely on both sides on the lunge although he tired quickly on his weak side and could not strike off correctly when I asked for one last try.

Since then I’ve had a lot of lesson. The bank account is suffering because I’ve been having 2 or 3 lessons in a week. And in every lesson, I get that right canter.

It’s hard though. I have to be riding at the edge of my ability and I can’t tell for myself if we’re on the right leg or not, because in that direction he feels really unbalanced on either leg so they feel equally wrong and bad! So I need someone shouting “wrong leg” for me. If I look down at his shoulders the change in my weight unbalances him more and he stops cantering, so I’ve got to learn to feel it.

In lessons now we get the right leg at least 3 out of 4 times, and I’m starting to know from the trot whether or not he’ll do it. If the trot’s not quite there, I won’t ask, even if he’s trying to anticipate the transition, because if I do then he’ll get it wrong.

The trouble comes when we can’t get it and he and I get more tired and worried about it with every ask. And as we’re both finding it hard we don’t have much spare energy to set it up and try many times.

It’s a shame I don’t have a regular riding friend or helpful spectator to call out when we’re on the wrong leg – it would make it much easier for me to practice outside my lessons. I have tried riding in the indoor school and using the mirrors there, but it’s very hard to coordinate everything at a place I can see in the mirror without twisting and even when I manage that it all looks different in the mirror and takes me too long to work out what I’m seeing. We tried that this morning and I think we managed it, but I can’t be sure. We have another lesson tomorrow, so hopefully we’ll keep doing well. We’ve certainly come a long way from not being able to manage it together at all.

Away from the intensity in the school, on one of the last hot days last week we went out for a hack. It seemed unlikely that it was only our second ever hack, but that’s the truth of it. Since last time I got him 4 hi-vis fetlock bands and myself a hi-vis hat band. The latter was somewhat improvised… I had looked at proper hat bands and decided they cost too much, so when I saw some hugely reduced hi-vis dog collars, I snapped up a couple, clipped them end to end, adjusted the length and now I can slip them onto my hat at a fraction of the price of a “real” one and they look close enough that no one will notice. (I realise that reads a little like a wartime make-do-and-mend propaganda article for ladies, but I’ve been working on a lot of vintage material at work of late and so can’t be expected to write in styles later than the ’40s.*)

So, gleaming with reflective yellow luminosity, we headed out. I’d forgotten how tense and wiggly he feels out of the school, but we had a pretty uneventful ride. Cars came along at reasonable points where there was somewhere for us to get out of the way; he wasn’t too fussed about the golfers tee-ing off this time. There was one point where one of his kneeboots was making a weird sound and I wondered if the clip on the bottom strap had come undone. He was a bit worried by the sound, so I dismounted and inspected the boots. There was nothing wrong with them but I think the clip on the meant-to-be-loose lower strap was banging against some other part of the boot, so I shortened the strap very slightly and worried about remounting.

We are taught never to mount from the ground – always from a leg up or a mounting block to save the horse’s back. But this means that when you are off your horse without access to a leg up or a block, it’s a bit daunting getting back on! I can probably count the number of times I’ve mounted a horse from the ground on 1 hand, but luckily my horse is not tall. On the other hand my legs are quite short šŸ˜‰ Luckily at this point we were by a few houses rather than out in the lanes, and there was a short stretch of kerb, which I tried to utilise to give me a little extra help. Unfortunately he wasn’t being particularly helpful and moved away from the kerb as soon as I put my left foot in the stirrup, but I hauled myself back on board and we set off again.

I felt a certain tension and lift in his back – he was defecating. Most unusually for him, he decided he’d like to stop for this instead of his usual on-the-go attitude so I permitted a pit stop. Unfortunately just as he finished his business a dog we hadn’t seen on the other side of the hedge ran up and barked at us making us both jump sharply, but we didn’t suffer anything worse than a shock, and carried on our way back.

Back on the yard I tied him outside his stable (as the bed was made and he was going out, so I didn’t want it spoiled) and untacked him. I quickly put the tack away and came back with his turnout gear … he was stretched out and peeing a torrent… splashing up his legs all over 2 expensive knee boots and 4 brand new hi-vis fetlock bands as well as all up the wall. Thanks Drifter.

Needless to say they and the horse were washed. It occurred to me afterwards it probably would have been easier to leave everything on the horse and hose the gear down in situ, but I didn’t think of that at the time.

In other news, expect me to be calling him woolly boy again more often – the winter coat growing is in full swing. He is seriously fuzzy. No one else’s horse looks like a persian cat, just mine, but everyone wants to stroke his soft fluffy neck. I’m trying to put off getting him clipped for a few more weeks, because I think he’ll just grow out again. It started growing in the hot August weather, so much as people tell me he won’t grow out if he’s well rugged, I’m taking that with a pinch of salt.

I don’t have any new pictures, so here’s a dragon picture again to keep you going. But he’s so much fuzzier than this now.

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*Some highlights have been the 1835 veterinary work with lots of discussion of hooves, shoeing and ailments of the horse; and the sarcastic suffragette poem telling women it was much better to bore themselves at home thinking only of cooking than to end up in prison trying to help womenkind. There were also some illustrated hardware catalogues from the 1870s and a 1960s edition of Dante’s Divine comedy in parallel Italian and Esperanto, which I’m sure will come in handy.