Diet changes

While we haven’t actually seen the vet since I last posted, we have of course kept in touch. All of the tests the vet ran on Drifter all came back slightly off, but not enough to point to anything specific, so the only option was to treat the symptom (diarrhoea). It seems likely that some specific event upset his gut balance and it hasn’t been able to fix itself although the cause is probably now no longer around. The probiotic hasn’t had a chance to re-populate the good gut bacteria because of the great speed at which it travels through the horse and into the muck heap!

So the plan was to slow everything down. While this could have been achieved medically, we would rather try doing it as gently as possible, so instead of an anti-diarrhoeal we are changing the diet, as you probably guessed from the title of the post.

We needed to go to a molasses-free chaff, so we switched from the ordinary Dengie Hi-Fi that he gets free as part of his livery package to Dengie Hi-Fi Molasses Free, which involved an exciting adventure to the feedshop, where I also remembered to purchase a bin to put it in.

The probiotic dose he was already on was doubled.

To soothe his stomach we are adding vegetable oil. While the vet would like him to have a cup-full in each feed, he knows most horses will reject this, so we started with a tablespoon-full in each feed and are increasing it every few days.

The final addition to his feed is charcoal. This is to slow the gut down and absorb toxins and he’s getting 3-4 tablespoons per feed.

Apart from the oil, everything else changed on the same day and Drifter was not at all sure about it. On the first day I wasn’t there at feed time but the staff said he spit the charcoal on the floor and overturned the bowl, but I was there for the next feed and he ate it fine. Perhaps he needed to learn that he wasn’t going to get his usual feed just because he rejected that one or perhaps it wasn’t well mixed, but since then he’s been OK with it. As a precaution I’ve asked that he doesn’t get his haynet until he’s finished his feed.

A few days on and I’m cautiously optimistic. [This is your Too Much Information warning here….] His bowel movements still begin with a flush of liquid, but the stools that follow are a much better consistency. They hold their shape, are a more uniform colour and the fibre within them looks much more broken down than it did before the diet change. While they’re still not as well digested as those produced by other horses on the yard (yes, I’ve spend a lot of time analysing the contents of the muckheap) they’re definitely a vast improvement.

He also seems to have more energy, and I’m hopeful he may put a little weight back on soon. He has lost quite a lot, which is not surprising. His saddle fit is pretty poor because of it, so we’ve borrowed a prolite pad from a friend until we can get our own. I don’t want to have a saddle fit until his weight settles down a bit though, as it’s too expensive to need another one only weeks later. Hopefully though, if this feed change continues to show benefits, we’ll be booking that saddle fit soon.

Despite the not-so-great saddle, he’s been doing very nicely in the school. We can walk and trot in a great shape, working well without worrying that we will overdo it. I don’t worry about anything in walk or trot now, and although we are still doing very little in canter, when we do canter, it is no uglier than it ever was! Today we had 20 m canter circles on the bit on both reins – the first time we’ve had that since pre-lameness, back in the early summer. The right rein was a bit motor-bike-ish, but still better than I had thought it might be.

Last Sunday I had a lesson booked but didn’t feel well, so once I’d warmed him up in walk my instructor got on. That was really interesting. Drifter looked very nice, of course, being ridden by an excellent dressage rider, and the comments were useful as well as seeing what he did. Of course Drifter gave him plenty of forwards, and made him work hard to contain it into something useful. The main thing the instructor articulated, which I sort of knew but it’s always good to have someone else verbalise it, is that he prefers to just go forwards rather than listen to what you’re asking, particularly if it’s something he didn’t expect. You have to really make him wait, almost stop him, before you ask for something hard or different from what he expected. He also agreed that we need to work on straightness and getting him equally responsive to aids from both sides. When I first got Drifter, Drifter kind of trained me to do everything with my weight or the left rein, because he’d ignore the right rein, leaning on the left, and just rush off like a giraffe if I touched him with either leg. As time’s gone on he accepts the leg better but has never responded equally to either leg because of stiffness issues and his preference for going only off the left rein. These days I can get him into both reins, but he’s still not even in his acceptance of the leg, and easily forgets to be even in the reins if I’m not on his case the whole time about it.

It was really nice to see that my instructor couldn’t get him to leg yield in both direction. One way he did achieve, but every time he tried on the other rein Drifter gave his “sorry I’m too busy rushing forwards” response and didn’t/wouldn’t/couldn’t do it. I don’t think he understands that a rider can ask him to move in that way or that he could actually do it. It made me feel so much better to see that he doesn’t have a pre-programmed button for leg-yield in that direction – it’s not just that I can’t do it! I know I ought to try programming it from the ground, but our ground-work has ground to a halt since I can’t use any treats because of the dietary restrictions. I know I could do things without treats, but since we’ve begun the whole clicker training and positive reinforcement process, I’m reluctant to go down the negative reinforcement route, and to be honest apart from food I can’t positively reinforce in a way that interests him! He doesn’t really like scratches or pats, and while voice praise is nice, it’s not enough for him without something to back it up.

So for the moment I’m just going to keep trying from the saddle, and accept that this is not an easy thing for him to learn, so it’s not going to just happen. At some point in the future I’m sure we’ll be allowed treats again and we’ll resume clicker training. Until then, work in the saddle is pretty exciting and we have plenty of challenges!

Trot on!

I’ve been holding off on telling you that we’re trotting again, because I was still holding my breath about it a bit. (Remember that last time we were told we could trot it ended up setting us back to square 1.)

But I’m cautiously optimistic.

On Saturday we went on our first solo hack since all this lameness started almost 6 months ago. It was fabulous – we did not have one moment where we were nervous. He didn’t like the big lorry thing that was pumping something in front of a house, but I was not worried so he got over it without issue. I didn’t like the red Landrover passing us that close and fast, but he wasn’t phased so I got over it. This is exactly what I hoped would happen as a result of our in-hand walks on the roads – we’re both more confident so we’re not each making the other anxious about things that are not actually an issue.

On Saturday night it was his first night of winter routine – which meant the first night without overnight turnout.

On Sunday morning we schooled and re-introduced trotting around a corner/curve. We’ve got another few days before we can try a circle, but the corners seemed to go OK. And between being allowed to trot with a bend and the extra energy he always has when he’s first kept in at night, we were able to get some very nice work done. As he was working into my hands, we could work on his tendency to lean on the left hand side of the bit and not really take much contact on the right. For the first time in months instead of a rehabilitation focus I was able to put a bit of a development aim into the ride. For the first time I had the buzz that comes with a horse with the health, will and energy to work forwards and listen and learn. Most of our work was still done in walk, but it was challenging and interesting and fun and tiring.

It helped that he was shod and saw the physio both last week, but this one ride has made me so much more optimistic that he could be sound through the winter.

The initial proposition for this year’s winter turnout for all horses on the yard was ca. 3 hours, 3 times a week (weather permitting). Following debate and some upheaval, we are now all on ca. 2 hours everyday (weather permitting), which is much better news for me and Drifter. Obviously it’s still far from perfect, but with daily turnout I have a much better chance of keeping his joints moving over the winter and much less pressure on me to do it all with exercise. It is a great relief.

He’ll be having his 2nd clip of the year next week because he’s too hairy for a horse who’s allowed to trot – he can barely walk without sweating on a warm day!

The post before Lee Pearson lesson no. 3

Before we get to the Lee Pearson lesson I thought I’d better do a general riding update. Also we bought a new camera today but I haven’t had a chance to take it to the stables, so the photos are unrelated to the text.

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I had felt that Drifter and I have improved a lot lately, and I seemed to be picking up a lot from my peers, sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly, as when I rode twice last week with a girl who I cannot call a teen anymore since she turned 20. She likes us to walk round the school next to each other talking for substantial periods of time, which often does not appeal to me because I want to get on and work, but I had a couple of days where time was less of an issue and I found I enjoyed giving our rides a different pattern with her. Drifter found it intensely irritating to walk for a long time but for that very reason I thought it was good for him. He would have preferred it if her mare didn’t pull faces at him, but he accepted his place at the bottom of the pecking order and I found that after a while he resigned himself and went rather pleasantly on the bit for a while. On the right rein (his easy bend) everything was quite harmonious but when we changed the rein our issues with bend were really apparent. He does find it harder to bend that way, but when I drew my friend’s attention to it she watched for a few corners and pointed out I was hanging on the right (outside rein) so blocking the bend and confusing what I was asking for. This tied in with what I had noticed in the other direction previously: when something isn’t going how I wanted I tend to cling to the right rein, thus pulling him off the track. So it seems I always hang on the right rein as soon as I feel something isn’t going right. Once I corrected this with her in walk we got better bend (it’s still not as good as the other side, but at least it’s a bend!) Hopefully I can be mindful of this and stop doing it.

During that first ride we discussed my crop – the fact that I think I’ve got the hang of carrying it without dropping it or flailing it around too much, but haven’t got any idea of how to use it. She offered me the loan of a schooling whip, saying she’d never got the hang of crops and I might find it easier.

So I had a tip about what I was consistently doing wrong and a new whip to play with.
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I got used to riding with the longer whip but found Drifter a little … eager… while I was holding it. He is a forward horse anyway, but it was more hollow and running-away type of forward than usual.

Good Friday came and although I’d thought I would ride, I found myself lacking the energy. He’d been out in the fields in the morning, so he didn’t need to be exercised, so I gave riding a miss. I pulled his mane, and although it is not the neatest finish I’ve ever achieved, it is the first time I’ve finished and felt it was as short as I’d wanted. I also experimented with taking a little off the tail although I wasn’t really sure what I wanted there. I’m not sure he’d suit a pulled tail, even if I felt like doing it, so I probably need to be sure to leave enough that I can still plait it, and the bits that seemed most tempting to pull were the bits I’d use in a plait, so I left it. But I have discovered that he does not react badly if I pull his tail.

After pulling I went out to see who was riding. Lady-with-a-pony was there. She’s been making great progress although her confidence issues keep her from seeing it. She was cantering quite nicely but felt he was going too fast (well he wouldn’t give us any trouble in a race but then we do go too fast!) The other lady riding at the same time, who is very experienced and encouraging, suggested that she try cantering on a circle to stop him speeding up. Lady-on-a-pony did not think she could do this but the other rider and I both told her the first time we did it we thought we couldn’t either. To build her confidence we got her trotting nice circles before she tried a canter and she made a pretty good go of it in the end. While I was watching, encouraging and advising I realised that while I’m really pleased Drifter and I can canter circles now, I pretty much always ask for only one circle, then trot, pat and praise. And our circles are really only vaguely round. I saw that I need to start working by staying on the circle – cantering at least 2 circles, or alternatively just a few strides, before coming back to trot and staying on the circle. Once that would have been beyond us, but it’s time to try reaching for the next step.

So now I had a new training idea to work on as well.
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Over the time Lee Pearson’s been coming to teach at our yard his popularity has spread by word of mouth with the consequence that by the time this weekend came we had a day and a half of teaching for him. I was down for a Sunday lesson. On Saturday I turned up to ride early as I wanted to ride indoors so it would have to be before Lee started in there at 10.00e

I was keen to go inside as that’s the school with the correct dimensions for the dressage test and also because I wanted to check just how unsquare our halts are in the mirror, and be able to try tapping the offending quarter with the borrowed long whip.

Lee drives his car into the school and teaches from within it, so both doors were tied open to let him drive in when he arrived. I would not usually ride with the doors open, but saw no reason not to – I was aware I’d need to take more care riding near the doors because Drifter would be tempted by the visible freedom but I didn’t think it would be a problem. I would be mindful that at any point a car might drive in, but D is sensible in traffic so again I was not concerned. As it happened Lee didn’t arrive until after we’d finished anyway.

We warmed up and I felt he was not particularly listening to me, in particular ignoring my downwards transitions and barging through my rein aids. I tried to get him more responsive with a series of quick transitions but it didn’t seem to do the trick, so after a little while I decided to just run the dressage tests and see what happened. They were … fast. But I did prove to myself that I’ll be able to get through both tests with or without his cooperation! Interestingly the halts were (for us) surprisingly square. I wondered if the very holding of the schooling whip had triggered the memory that halts are supposed to be square. It occurred to me later it might be the extra energy from the speed improving them.

So time for some of our new circle work. After some trot circles I decided the first thing I’d ask for in canter was 2 full 20 m circles at C. Not one and three-quarter circles, not two and a bit, an exact 2, starting and ending at C. And we got it first time. He was surprised by the second circle and so the balance was not as good but I got exactly what I planned. After that success I tried a series of trot and canter transitions before changing the rein to try the same in the other direction.

I’d started on the easy side on purpose but now we were on the right rein things might be different. I sort of got my two circles to start with … but the second had a little hiccup in it. Was that a buck? I was so focussed on getting my two circles that all else was a secondary concern. In hindsight I probably ought to have at least shouted at him, but the good point of my focus was that message to him was that bucking does not get you out of doing what you’re asked!

So we carried on working the circle in trot and canter …until the canter got a bit quick and went tearing off the circle down to the open doors at the A end of the school. Oops! I did not turn him with finesse and delicacy but we stayed in the school! Then I realised we were in a tug of war down the reins and tried giving him the reins back to see if he’d react by coming back to me (sometimes works) … but no, still careering around the track. I felt the long whip was really not helping and wanted to drop it but was afraid if I did he’d see it move and get faster or worse, it would hit him as he fell and he’d get faster. Several laps of the school later I got him back to me and regained my circle and reinstated the lesson. I also decided I did not want to carry the schooling whip again.

We cooled down and left before Lee arrived. We’d see him tomorrow.

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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.
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*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.

Lunging, riding and a smart re-clip

I was delighted to find that the sharp new clipper blades had been employed to good effect. As usual the photography is poor, but it’s hard to get a picture of a large animal in a very confined space after dark on a not-too-great mobile camera and I tried my best. You’ve already seen one of the not-quite-what-I-intended photos as the Halloween post.wpid-20131026_184118.jpg

This time they took more off the tummy and sides, which I’m really pleased about. I wanted to keep his legs and back end fully fuzzy, but he did still get quite hot after the first clip, so this seems like a good compromise. I do love his leg-warmers, which is why I’m posting this otherwise terrible picture! – to show you the thickness of the furry legs!wpid-20131026_184037.jpg

As mentioned previously, because of the physio & chiro rest days I haven’t been riding much. On Saturday night I got him groomed and pessoa-ed up for a lunge. It was dark and windy. We started with plenty of easy walking and stepped it up to trotting with some trot/walk transitions (these are much easier in the pessoa than side reins but he still has a tendency to keep trotting and trotting). He was getting much more confident trotting in the pessoa, so as we went on I tightened it gradually, thinking we would do a few more sessions in trot and then we could think about trying to introduce the canter, on the easy rein first. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, it was very dark and really rather windy. We were in the big school which has a large tree alongside it. The big tree did what big trees do in wind – it waved itself suddenly and (apparently) very alarmingly just as he was passing it. Drifter tried to put his head in the air and get away from the tree-monster with a canter stride or two. Of course he found that his head was tied down and his back end tied in. As you would expect in this situation, he started bucking.

I have spent some time watching YouTube videos of horses in pessoas and of them bucking in pessoas. In every one of these bucking videos I’ve seen, the horse does handstands while kicking out the back legs to free the back end from the strap around the hocks. There’s even one video in which the horse has got the hand of freeing herself and manages to get the back end off.

Not my little boy.

He went pronking. Yes, that’s a word. In case you’re not sure what it is, here’s a picture:Springbok_pronk

If a picture’s not doing it for you and you need a video, here’s the footage that introduced me to the concept of pronking in the first place.

I’m not sure wetting yourself with laughter is the approved response when your horse is bucking on the end of a lunge line, but honestly, he was hilarious. He pronked neatly for about 1/3 of a circuit, never putting any extra tension on the lunge line, keeping a neater circle than he usually does in his regular gaits before settling back into a fast trot. I put him straight back into the transitions as if nothing had happened and it was indeed as if nothing had happened.

I left the experience rather amused but thinking that perhaps it would be better to try an official canter attempt sooner rather than later, so that we would be better prepared for any more unexpected canters. I wanted him to be doing a little better in trot but I didn’t think we were far off a first little attempt, even though it would be a while before I’d regularly ask him to work in canter in it.

When I rode next I was pleasantly surprised with our mutual responsiveness. We were alone in the newly surfaced sand school but it was very deep and churned up so I thought maybe it would be best not to canter but to work in walk and trot. With our new-found abilities to move our bodies freely, we feel a little like a new horse and rider getting to know each other. Previous givens are no longer as they were. So walk and trot were more than enough to keep us busy. In fact, had it been only my interests I had to please, we could probably have done the whole session in walk, but he needs the chance to move out, so of course we did plenty of trotting too. In walk and trot he was forward, round and better balanced than I’m used to. I was focusing on how he moved, mainly going large with the occasional circle, centre line, serpentine or shallow loop. Then I thought I’d try running the walk-trot dressage test, which we hadn’t touched since August. It was hard. When it came to putting the movements together all our good form fell away. He rushed, I was unbalanced and struggled to steady him. He lost his roundness and bend, I overcompensated and ended up affecting directional control trying to get the bend back. Hmm. Not quite ready for all that yet are we? Back to mainly going large, and trying to do one good circle once he’s moving well on the straight.

The next time we met it was back on the lunge. Again the weather was poor and the school was soaking, but he was doing well enough in trot that I thought I might ask for a canter transition and see what happened. Only on his happy side, of course. So what did happen? Proper handstand bucking pulling me across the school happened initially, but only for a few seconds. Then he got into a very quick canter while I praised, soothed and tried to slow him down. Was it the way I’d want him to work regularly? No, not at all. Was I proud of him for getting it quickly without making more of a fuss? Yes, I certainly was. It’s hard for him to canter on the lunge, even without the pessoa, even on his happy rein, so he did better than I expected. Some of the excess speed was from the startling feeling of striking off in the pessoa, but some of it is just his usual “I don’t feel balanced so I rush and rush”. He stayed in canter for quite a while (I’d been asking for him to slow down almost since he’d got his canter, so this was not a case of me keeping him in canter!) and when he came back down the gears we started the cool down. I considered taking everything off and cantering him on the difficult rein without the pessoa, but decided against it. Now I intend to let that session “sit”. He’s done it now, so he knows he can canter in it. I don’t think he’s ready to work that way yet, but if we have another spook related incident in the pessoa he now knows how to canter in it. We’ll work in walk and trot with it until he’s stronger and then reintroduce the canter in the future.

Next time I rode. Again, I found walk fascinating. As I mentioned in the previous post he has a habit of leaning on the rider’s arm through the left rein which I had been not feeling because of the stiff part of my upper left back. I think I’d just been setting that unfeeling stiffness against his leaning. This ride, for the first time, I managed not to do that at all. All the time I was riding I was mindful of that part of my back and keeping him from doing that. For the first time I had the feeling my instructor described where you feel like you’re holding directly onto the bit rings rather than to the reins. I really had the feel of his mouth as if I was that directly joined to him rather than through the reins. It was hard. For both of us. He struggled to carry himself because he wanted to lean on me and I wouldn’t let him. I had to have a constant focus on it. I found that when we were on the track and I was asking for a slight inside bend, regardless of direction, he was OK with that (perhaps suggesting I’m letting him lean on the outside rein while asking for inside bend?) but when I tried a centre-line, 3/4 line or diagonal he really struggled to hold himself and be straight. I found this really interesting and would have loved to work longer, but after 20 min. I  felt that I couldn’t really carry on because it was exhausting me. At the time I felt like a wuss, as I cooled him down on the buckle, and wished I could have worked for longer.

But a couple of hours afterwards I was really glad I stopped when I did. My left shoulder was really painful! I’m pretty sure that throughout the 2 yrs and 6 months that I’ve been riding, every time I rode I’ve taken the weight of the contact through that stiff bit of my back. The muscles that should have been working in that shoulder and strengthening every time I rode had never worked before. No wonder after 20 min. I felt like I couldn’t do any more. The wonder is how I managed a full 20 min of hard use on those muscles before I stopped. I iced the shoulder and went to bed.

In the morning it was sore enough that I was mildly worried I’d done more than just overwork it. It really hurt and there were certain positions in which I just couldn’t hold the arm up with it. But I thought it was probably just extreme muscle soreness and spend large portions of the day consuming protein to rebuild it, and planning to ride again that night. Driving from work to the stable  I was begging lights to change so that I wouldn’t have to move my left arm to change gear, and planning my route to minimise gear changes. At some point on the journey I decided that riding like this wasn’t going to do anything constructive for either of us. Much as it galled me not to improve on the work we’d been doing, and much as I wanted him to have a work out after the short session the day before, I had to accept I just wasn’t capable. It was particularly galling because if I’d realised earlier that I couldn’t ride, I could have gone out straight from work for drinks with a friend. I have to say I really feel that he hasn’t had as much exercise as he should this week, but I suppose it won’t hurt for just one week. It will get easier to increase his exercise as a) the physio’s happy with his progress and doesn’t want to see him again for 3-4 months, so he won’t be on light duties again (touch wood) and b) I suspect that dropping my chiro sessions from twice a week to once a week will be happening very soon, so I’ll have half as many days in the week when I can’t ride from that point of view.

The next day, today, my shoulder is feeling much better. It’s still very painful in certain positions, but it’s just muscle soreness that will heal itself quickly enough. I won’t be riding today but lunging again because I saw the chiropractor again this morning. He’s pleased with my progress and my next session with him will be an assessment of how far I’ve come since I started with him a few weeks ago. Honestly I don’t care whether he’s pleased or not – I’m delighted. Yes I think there’s still room for improvement, but the benefits have been so much greater than I would ever have dared hope. I feel like every day now I get up out of the right side of the bed. I feel like the best bits of a relaxing holiday without having to travel anywhere. I’ve turned into a chiropractic evangelist! Now if I can just get that shoulder stronger so it doesn’t try to drop off every time I ride for 20 minutes, I’ll be pretty impressed with my body.

We went shopping in TKMaxx after we’d been to the chiropractor, as I was in need of an evening dress or 2. I got 3 as it happens, all reduced and all more in the cocktail dress line of things rather than full length. Mr S goes to a surprising number of evening events and so I have to be kept in dresses so as not to let the side down. Anyway, to get to the point of this apparently off topic digression; as well as feeling much better, I think my body looks much better. Trying on various dresses I felt that every one looked much better on me than they would have in the past. It’s no great surprise that one looks more like the classical ideal of beauty with level hips and shoulders, with a straight upright neck and generally with everything lining up, but it’s another very pleasant side effect. Before my first session I read the brochure, “What to expect from your treatment” but nowhere was I warned that side effects might include feeling unusually happy and beautiful!
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Image credit:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Springbok_pronk.jpg

What am I?

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A woolly boy closeup!

I couldn’t get a full body shot that showed the hairiness as well as this. This is the current state of his neck, with the back of his jaw just at the right of the shot. The mud on his neck was removed after I took the shot, but I thought it might make it easier to see if I took the picture pre-grooming.

I know I said I was going to hold out, but he’s just getting so sweaty, so I’ve asked for him to be clipped at some point this week.

Sunday morning we had a lesson. Saturday night was his last night of Summer turnout pattern and it didn’t leave him in a good mood. There was little grass and the temperature was lower and all the horses came in cold, grumpy and hungry.* I arrived at 9.30 and he was already hungry enough for his 11.00 haynet to be kicking the door (and getting told off for it). He seemed so hungry that I actually checked he’d been fed! He had been: hard feed and morning haynet had been hoovered up. I put a fleece on him and he warmed up a bit before the lesson but he remained in a foul mood and had a good try at biting me when I girthed him, which he hasn’t tried for months and months.

It turned out there’d been a bit of a mix up with schools – there were lessons booked in all 3 and a lady had come to view and try 2 expensive dressage horses belonging to the dealer/trainer who works out of the yard. As mine was the lesson in the biggest school, I was the one who ended up sharing.**

2 beautiful, well-bred and well-trained young warmblood dressage horses, shining and groomed to the highest standards, with gleaming black tack and shining white exercise bandages entered the school, each being shown to their full advantage by dressage riders of a very high calibre. They joined me, my little, unbalanced extremely hairy cob, my very basic riding skills and my rather loud instructor. To say I felt outclassed would be somewhat of an understatement 😉 

But it was my lesson and I was having it. After a few minutes of  getting over the surprise we really started working. For the most part they avoided me and for the most part I forgot about them and got on with it. Once the trot work was going well we started by cantering on the good rein and managed 3 pretty good balanced circles that were surprisingly round. I was really pleased with the roundness of the circles – easily the best we’ve ever done, but they did take it out of us and then it was time to set up cantering to the right. His bad mood had been in evidence at points throughout the lesson, but now it really manifested, mainly in cantering on the spot (on the wrong leg) when I asked for a more ‘together’ trot, but also in napping, which he hasn’t tried for months. So I rode him. We got that canter lead eventually through sheer willpower on my part, and even managed to canter 1 good circle (and one terrible 3/4 of a circle) on the correct lead. By the time we were allowed to stop I was so out of breath all I could hear were my lungs and my heart. I assumed he was blowing too, but the cooldown was as much for me as for him! I realised I’d completely forgotten about the buyers watching, and only been conscious of the dressage horses enough to pass on the correct side and avoid crashing.

On the way back to the stable he tried to bite me again but I’m pretty grumpy when I’m hungry, so I rugged him and arranged for him to have an extra haynet.  We have another lesson on Tuesday so I hope we can keep building on this success, but also that he’ll be in a better mood by then!

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*I’m surprised he wasn’t rugged when I got there – this is the first time I’ve ever thought he should be rugged and he wasn’t.

**Also the first time I’ve heard of anyone having to share a school for a lesson.

Cantering to the right?

DSCN4334I expect this to turn into quite a long post … so don’t say you haven’t been warned. Drifter appears to be saying that long posts are not his cup of tea, but then this is a picture taken after I’d ridden him in my lesson and then pulled his mane, so I think he’d had enough of me by this point.

The quest to canter to the right has so far included three visits from the physiotherapist and quite a few schooling sessions, at least one of which was with my instructor riding him so that she could better advise me.

The phsysio has really made a marked difference. He is much more even to ride now. I am quite asymmetric myself, although this is an area I’ve really improved in, but both my instructor and I were blaming me for quite a bit of wonkyness that was actually the horse not the human. Since he’s had his sore bits loosened up suddenly I don’t feel like my right leg is floating around unconnected to the rest of my body. I no longer get 10 minutes into a ride and feel like one leg is exhausted and the other isn’t.  My “feel” for him has really improved. At first I assumed that was from the lunge lessons, but I wonder now whether it’s because it’s hard to feel a horse that’s trying not to use one quarter as much as the other. Now he’s moving freely we’re not using our energy disagreeing over whether he’ll use all of his legs equally, and have more energy left to think about everything else.

Showing the pulled mane and also the weight he's put on. And the pile of pulled-out mane is in the right of the shot.

The newly pulled mane. This also shows some of the weight he’s put on since I got him. And the pile of pulled-out mane is in the right of the shot.

The physio said that because of his weak side being very weak circles are hard for him and that we should do squares with round corners. This makes sense, and now I can feel that circles are hard for him. Now that I can feel his balance more I can feel that the basic walk trot dressage test is actually pretty challenging for him. It’s not just because of the rider that the circles weren’t round and the turns onto the centre line were iffy. I had my heart set on doing a walk-trot-canter dressage test as soon as we could. It looks now as if that might be a way off. I thought all our issues were about my riding standard needing to improve and hadn’t realised he was struggling as well. I imagine that he’s not been schooled that much or surely he’d be more even? I know he’s hunted, and I’m told his habit of looking to the outside rather than the inside probably stems from having been lunged a lot in the past, so perhaps his schooling has been neglected.

So he’s been getting some professional schooling alongside my efforts. When my instructor rode him she said that she found it much easier to get him to canter when he had lots of impulsion and roundness. So that’s what I’ve been working on. In walk and trot, mostly. I’m finding that hard enough to keep me busy without asking for the canter transition as well. As he’s getting schooled by the staff that means he can work on the canter without me and I can work on impulsion and roundness without worrying about the canter for the meantime, and then think about the canter once I’m more at home with how I need to get him going before asking for the transition.

The eye itself is better now, just a few scabs underneath still to heal.

The eye is better now, just a few scabs underneath still to heal.

For the first time I feel like I’m being taught how to ride him in a way that will improve him, rather than just how to stop, go and steer. But I suppose while I was struggling with stop, go, steer (partly because of my skill level but also, unbeknown to be and the instructors, because of this soreness  and weakness he was hiding) those things had to be sorted out first. I had felt like my riding wasn’t improving the way it ought to be, despite repeating endlessly to myself that everyone learns at different paces and adults are always slower than children and teens. Well perhaps most riders of my level of experience are on horses who find it much easier than mine does. The school horses I’ve met can all do walk trot tests in their sleep, even with very poor riders, because that’s their job. If one started struggling on one rein the instructors would spot it sooner or later and it would get sorted out. So when the teens ask me for the 100th time when I’m going to start jumping, I’ll take a deep breath and remind myself that we’re making great progress with the bodies and minds we have been given, his and mine both.

From time to time I wonder if I should have some lessons on a school horse, but it seems pretty pointless to pay extra to ride a school horse while paying staff to ride mine! If the not-yet-jumping starts to get to me I might try some jump lessons on a school horse, but if it gets to that I might if Drifter & I can try some tiny jumps in trot, on straight lines that won’t challenge his balance. I get the feeling that he likes to jump – if there are poles up he’s interested in them (although he does not like the look of some of the fillers at all). The instructor who teaches beginner jumping is more in the “chuck them at it and see if they hit the ground” school of thought rather than something more cautious. I would be more in the market for “tiny jump the horse can walk over to build some confidence about the whole thing in horse and rider”. But that’s all probably a long way off.

Unfortunately I’ve now got a virus and haven’t been well enough to ride this week, which is not going to help our progress.

Back to the cantering… at the end of my lesson last weekend we did do a little cantering. I might suggest you turn the volume down before watching because my instructor can be quite loud…

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