Friday, February 17, 2017

Why Bitless Dressage is Stupid

An MS Paint Special brought to you by SprinklerBandits Blog.

Premature PS: If you're looking for a serious discussion of this topic, hop on over to Austen's blog. If you like snark, ms paint masterpieces, and have your popcorn ready, keep on reading.

There's an article going around right now about yet another petition to allow bitless dressage, which at present isn't allowed in competition by any credible organization anywhere in the world. This is fairly unusual--the only other thing people are as united against is child porn, but let's not think too hard about that.

Instead let's think about dressage. It's done by people on horses.

This is a person.
this cool person has a top hat
 This is a horse.
In case you missed the big red flag there, a horse weighs around 10x what an average person does. Interesting. Hold that thought.

Next, a HUUUUUUUGE component of dressage is having the horse "on the bit".
pictured: not on the bit

Why? Because dressage isn't a series of party tricks performed in a big top tent for a paying crowd. It's an art, a dance even, where two separate entities together become something more than either one is on their own. A person doing dressage without a horse is just an idiot in a tail coat and a horse doing dressage without a person is out of control.

What's more "on the bit" doesn't mean "head down, nose tucked in". That's called "head down, nose tucked in" or "hunters" or "trail riding" or what-have-you. Head-down-nose-tucked-in is fine, but it's not "on the bit".
head-down-nose-tucked-in
When a horse is on the bit, it's the first step in a larger dance. It's the moment where the horse and the rider change from having two minds and two balance points and two ideas about life to one. It's where "awkwardly tripping over the other person" becomes "ballroom dancing". It's not static--this is a dynamic tension between horse and rider that is the first and most elemental step to all the steps that ever follow.
and you thought i was a one-trick pony

That's why it's not piaffe when your OTTB inverts and jigs. That's inverting and jigging. There's no connection (whaaaaaaat it works on so many levels)(all puns intended).

So let's circle back around to that first part.

Horse.

Human.

Size.

There's a reason "bull in a china store" isn't a pleasant descriptor of dance or dressage. Think about it. The horse outweighs you by a factor of 10. Human biology is such that even if we can lift 10x our body weight, it's not a pleasant, graceful, melding of two entities. It's raw, Neanderthal-esque brutality.

And I'm not saying that to piss on Neanderthals--they surely serve(d?) a mighty purpose, just that purpose wasn't horse dancing.
this chap does not have a top hat

A bit is the Colt .45 of the old west (God didn't make all men equal--Mr Colt did. C'mon. Keep up.). Because we puny humans are exponentially smaller and weaker than our equine partners, we need a way to be in balance with them that doesn't involve sheer 1:1 force, because given the simple physics of human vs. equine size, that force is and must be unreasonable to both human and horse.

In simple fact: a bit is not a device to allow humans to muscle horses around. A bit instead permits two-way communication between two partners whose two separate balance points have become one single point.

A bit is the lifeline of communication. A bit allows us to whisper straight to the horse's mouth without all that trouble of shouting at it's face like an asshole.
top hat doesn't make it a good idea
So bits. They give us the nuance of communication between human and horse in a way that both parties and understand and respect. They enable the balance that takes us from awkward tripping in a high school gym to the show ring and beyond.

Now yeah, a few of you are going to get up in my face and MY HORSE CAN BALANCE WITHOUT MY HELP JUST FINE AND I CAN BALANCE WITHOUT HIM AND THE BRIDLE IS JUST FOR STEERING YOU MEANIE PANTS BLOGGER YOU.

To which I say:

And also:

1) If you're not part of the balance, maybe you need to reconsider what the hell you're doing up there. But. Who am I to judge your very majikul konnektion and yes that was three ks figure it out.

2) The number of people who believe they don't need a bridle vs the number of people who actually don't need a bridle is a scary, scary number. Of ALL the accomplished equestrians I know across all the disciplines, I can think of 1 person who I would trust in public (you know, like at shows, which is what we're talking about) without a bridle and that person told me in no uncertain terms that in her mind, riding without a bridle is stupid because of the vast capacity for things to go wrong. You think your bridle is for steering. I think you're a dumbass. I guess that's as far as it gets.

And to clarify--I'm not hating on riding at home in a halter or hackamore or whatever scary-ass bitless leverage contraption you've strapped on your horse's head. Do whatever the hell you want. I'm just saying that at shows, your logic is invalid. The level playing field is predicated on all of us actually trying to achieve the same thing. So like. Go ahead. Be a champion of head-down-nose-tucked-in, but just don't do it at tense-inverted-jigging show if you want to win.

Ok internet. Go nuts.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Training While Broken: Courage Style

Thank you stupid car accident, I still feel like poo most of the time and my body doesn't work and my brain doesn't work super great either. I'm bored to tears by lunging right now and our outdoor arena is just starting to be rideable.
that makes both of us, i think

The few times I've sat on C-Rage this year have been in the safe confines of the indoor. You know, small, no windows, no room to get up serious speed if he decides to peace the hell out. It happens.

So because I'm not the rider I ought to be right now and Courage is the horse he is, I've made some different choices. For example, does anyone else remember how C likes to hardcore bolt and flail in the spring? And how the first ride outside ALWAYS necessitates bolting? No? Well maybe it's just me but if I weren't massively lazy, I'm pretty sure I could dig up posts about it for you.
am massively lazy. insert dr chiweenie image as diversion.

Soooooo our first excursion to the great outdoors was on a lunge line. With Vienna reins. In the safe end.
oh hullo there sexy
That went shockingly well--not a single bolt or flail, just positive forward energy. Let's look at that again.
dead sexy
The next day we worked back inside and C was definitely a little sore and tired from that much brilliance. Also kinda batshit due to the fluctuating turnout from the weather. Then we came back outside again, this time to do some groundwork in a rope halter.
i will take this
The whole idea was that I wanted Courage relaxed and focused on me, now in a "new" and definitely more interesting environment.
omg arena was worked!
Then came our first lesson since November! If I was a smarter person, I would have ridden inside but dammit it was 41f and sunny and the footing was perfect. Oh and I'm totally coasting on this thing where Courage knows I can't ride for shit and despite being a LUNATIC on the lunge half the time, he doesn't put a foot wrong when I ride him. It's possibly the sweetest thing ever.

look who's not bucking me off
I'm not going to lie to you and say it was perfect. My body is useless and doesn't do what it's told. My brain seems to process about 10 seconds behind constantly. My trainer was very, very patient and the worst thing Courage did the whole time was pick up a little canter stride instead of trotting forward, but he came right back when I lost my balance.
such a good boy
Note: I always tell my trainer the secret to this horse is to half ass it and ride like shit. I might be more right than I know.

Of course, the FOUR WHOLE (kidding, more like 2.5 if you count walk breaks) minutes of trotting was about as much as my stupid body felt like coping with, so our next session was in the rope halter. As much as I hate having my schedule dictated to me by pain, it's forcing me to think through how to address our problems differently.

So problem. When I ask Courage to do something he thinks is hard, he gets tense and flings himself around. Also problem: he thinks the top of the outdoor arena is scary.
opinions. we haz them.
So I took him to the top of the outdoor arena and did some groundwork exercises until he was focused and relaxed. Success level one: scary place not scary.

Then I looked at the scary ass mess of ground poles in the corner. Fun fact: C HATES ground poles. He's actually more ok with jumps than poles.

So I led him over them at the walk. That was fine. Time to make it harder.

I sent him over it at the walk on a circle left.
That was a little rushed, but ok.

Then I asked him to change direction and walk back over them.

BINGO

He didn't like me off his right side, he didn't like the poles, and he didn't like the scary end. He threw his shoulders in my direction and his head up and slammed it in reverse.

God damn I love ground work for this stuff. First things first--no horse gets to push into my space, even if they're ten feet away on a lunge line. Running over me is NOT an option. (PS and if you don't train your horse like this, do not ask me to handle it. I have zero tolerance for being run over.)

Next things next. When I say "go forward quietly", I mean "I am the boss hoss in this here shindig and I say it's safe to proceed quietly SO GIT YER ASS OVER THAR NAOW".
his yes ma'am face

Now, I have to qualify that statement--Courage is a sensitive horse with a hair trigger. In our relationship, a "big" reprimand is me swinging the coiled lunge line at his butt. Not hitting it. Swinging it at him. It's an unusual day if I really even pull on the rope. Because he is so reactive, I don't get excited when he slams it in reverse. I let him go so he doesn't feel trapped and don't reprimand unless it crosses the line into naughty.

And even then, when I say "reprimand", for this horse, I mean a tug on the rope and saying "knock it off, asshole" out loud in a normal tone.

This horse is not representative of all horses, but he's my horse and this is the method that gets me the best results. I don't feed his drama and then he comes back to me.

And maybe it's stupid to say this, but the biggest factor is the release--so he does something well and I immediately take pressure off by turning away, let him stand, and stare at my phone until he finishes licking and chewing.

So. All that. We fixed "go over there quietly" and we fixed "pay attention to SB" and we fixed "scary end omg", and then we went back to the poles.
hey look who can walk like a sane horse
 I guess I should add something here--I have no idea who set the poles or what the hell they were trying to accomplish. On this day with this horse, I wanted him to relax and look where he was going so I didn't "fix" them to a more correct distance. I wanted him to think through a problem calmly. No shits given about proper striding.

admit you kinda love his mud dreds

And by the end of the session, I had a horse working calmly through a difficult exercise with a soft eye and a soft body on the scary end of the scary arena. We call that "Success Level Two".

I certainly wouldn't choose to be this way and I don't know how well this is going to translate going forward, but it's a whole new way to spend time with Courage and we're making the best of it.

Monday, February 13, 2017

In Defense of Gadgets (or "Yes, Those Were Draw Reins You Saw")

I hate gadgets the way a rich, white Trump supporter hates welfare recipients--you know, theoretically but with very little personal experience to apply because I don't use them or hang out with people who do.

And now I have Courage. He's a thinking rider's horse. The "normal" stuff doesn't work for him, but walking the road less traveled can have spectacular results. I would never, ever intentionally take two months off riding. I would never have purchased a weird-ass lunging contraption (or two!). I would never, ever think I'd be riding my horse in draw reins.

And here I am.
yup there they are
In draw reins.

I've skirted around this issue, taken them off for pictures, and intentionally not said anything, because I'm 100% pro-horsemanship and 110% anti-shortcut, anti-gadget, and anti-training-your-horse-by-polling-ottb-connect-because-you're-too-stupid/vain/shortsighted-to-work-with-a-trainer.

But.

Draw reins have been with us for a very long time and while abominable excuses for horsemanship have too, those fads tend to come and go. Anyone used a bearing rein recently? No? Didn't think so. Those kinda went out in the Black Beauty era. I stand corrected. Apparently they're still a thing. Carry on.

Honestly, even talking about draw reins makes me throw up in my mouth a little bit--the potential for misuse or abuse is huge. The idea that someone could read this post and think "wow, she mocked my strategy of polling OTTB Connect for training ideas but then said something about draw reins so I'll get some" and would then run out and buy a set to throw on their woefully under-educated horse makes me physically ill.

So don't do that. I will publicly and privately eviscerate you. Consider that fair warning.

But I'm not dealing with your under-trained horse and under-educated riding. I'm dealing with my horse who has years of solid, thoughtful, educated training under his belt and yet still struggles with certain mechanics of how his body works. I'm working under the auspices of a professional trainer, who to my knowledge does not even own a set of draws and whom I have never seen use a gadget of any kind on any horse.

I'm talking about a long standing issue that I've addressed in every way under the sun with multiple professional trainers and none of them could touch it. I've spent years building Courage's trust and education to this point. I've spent months lunging him under saddle in what is basically fixed draw reins.

And in those months, I have seen Courage go from this:
one kind of air time

To this:
a much better kind of air time

I'm not talking about a quick fix here. Not at all. Courage was scoring around the 70s at training level at recognized shows. He hacks out. He toodles. He jumps (a little) and he's been in professional training for the better part of a year now. He was just not getting it in terms how how to use his body to push and go forward, especially in trot/canter transitions and especially as we asked him to move into first/second level work. We did lessons and pro rides and body work and talked to vets and covered all our bases there.

And then I quit riding and added the vienna reins lunging. It took months. Not a joke. Not an an exaggeration. I don't mean months of ripping around in mindless circles, either. Months of thoughtful, horse-first training in which I found different ways to present the information and explain to Courage what I wanted without ever getting angry and always being quick to reward the slightest try on his part.

Months.
late nights and early mornings

And now, I have a horse who probably 75% of the time on the lunge line, can give me a correct, balanced trot/canter transition in a calm manner. That's HUGE for us.

But now it's time to start back under saddle. I'm physically compromised and Courage is learning to transfer the information he's gleaned, but he's not confirmed and he can't be until he also understands with a rider.

I need the same effect that I get from the Vienna Reins, but I need it in a format that's safe to ride in. I need something I can release, but something that continues to explain to Courage that the balance he found on the lunge line is a balance he can use under saddle.

Draw reins it is.

BUT.

They are a gadget. They are so easy to abuse. You can wreck a horse permanently SO FAST. Ever seen a panicked runaway with it's nose on it's chest and that horrible look of pain and fear in it's eyes? Even if you have a tolerant saint of a horse, you can create so much distress, as Lauren pointed out. You can make that. You don't want to. It's flat out cruel.

Draw reins are not something I pick up lightly and they are something that will go away as soon as is reasonably practicable. I've introduced them very slowly. Lots of walking and toodling and just letting him feel them without having them do anything.

Now we've added in trotting and he's going well. So well. Not gonna lie, he feels like a whole new horse. He's learning to give me the base of his neck, which is what I need to go forward from here.

Even with all the training Courage has had and the education we both have, using draw reins pretty well freaks me out. I don't need him hyperflexed. I don't want him behind the bit or dumped on his forehand or any number of other Very Bad Things that come from a device that give me this massive amount of leverage over a flighty prey animal.
my first trot post-accident. 
These are a tool to explain to him that he can use his body a certain way and nothing more. They only work because he already understands contact and rhythm and has the basics installed to give him a frame of reference for what I want. Just like with the lunging, they have to be presented in a calm, horse-friendly manner and the only way he learns is if every single step makes sense to him. No rushing. No pushing. Once he understands what I'm looking for, the tool will go away and I don't anticipate bringing it back out.

And that's where it's at.

Theoretically, I hate gadgets. In practice, I'm using one and I'm very pleased with the results. That doesn't mean I recommend them and frankly, if you think they'll work for you, I think you're an idiot who needs a trainer and dear god please don't ruin your horse. Please.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Vienna Reins II: The Outcome

Because I obsessively research everything, I learned that Vienna reins are recommended for horses that need to learn to move their neck and back. 


"Needs to learn to move neck and back" basically describes Courage. (And me. Anyone know if there are Vienna reins for humans? I need them.) He's got a stuck spot right in front of his withers and when there's tension, that's exactly where it comes out. 

Anyways. Courage has been going in the Vienna reins for over a month now and I'm starting to get back in the saddle. 

DRUM ROLL PLEASE
ears
God damn I do not even know this horse. 

Courage is a whole different ride. I mean, he's always been hot, sensitive, and reactive, and that hasn't changed. But now? He's fascinating. How do I explain... 
um hello
First off, Courage now moves parts of his body that I'm not convinced he knew he had before. Nothing highlights how little I move my back like his swinging under me. Dayum son. Well done. 

But there's more than that. He's always been a light touch and quick to invert and get rigid. Now I get on and he's immediately stiff, yes, but if I like... pick up the contact, which is now a strong, solid contact, not a namby-pampy "are we both using the same bridle here" mystery, and then put my leg ON like if I actually have leg muscles that work, I'm riding this bizarre "dressage horse". 
we're learning

Now it's not magic. If I grab contact but don't use my legs, he stays stiff. If I use contact and legs but don't stay strong in my core, he just dumps on the forehand. I have yet to use legs and not reins, because really, who does that? I have to ride, which I can only do in about 90 second increments right now, but when I do ride, I'm riding a horse I really don't know. He goes boldly forward in this fantastic balance and it's not at all precarious. (Unlike me, who's still wildly precarious at this stage).

Not gonna lie, he kinda makes me feel bad about myself. I need to be stronger and more flexible and more competent to really develop what I'm starting to feel, but at least it's there in pieces now. 
hey this is cool
I'd be lying if I said I wished I had video to include because 1) I hate video and 2) "potato" is a generous description of my riding ability at present, but I do actually hope I can con someone into videoing us soon because I know how different everything feels, so now I want to see if it looks different to me. 

Plus if we have to keep lunging much longer, there's going to be a full on mutiny by the crew. PARLEY BITCHES.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Centaur Classic Dressage Boots Review

This past summer, I grabbed a pair of Centaur Classic Dressage Boots because the chunky look was all the rage and I wanted to take them for a whirl. I got them at Victory Canter, where there is always a 10% off coupon, so I paid around $70.
so new!
You might remember these boots from their hilarious video introduction on the blog.

Construction


This is a really interesting design for a boot--it's essentially a hard-shelled open front boot covered in a sleek non-leather lining with a layer of padding underneath. Per the official description, "Pliable padded vinyl boots with rigid protection plates where they are needed most - the ankle and tendon area."
who remembers summer?
These are possibly the easiest boots ever to put on. The molded shape means that you put them on the leg above where they would go, slide them down into place and when they sit comfortably, just a quick velcro up. No holding the boots up to make sure it covers the right things or trying to line up velcro or whatever. Drop 'em on, slap 'em shut. Done.

The pull tabs are easy to grab with or without gloves. There is no fleece to build up dirt and scurf in and they're very easy to hose out to clean and hang dry, plus the exterior vinyl looks clean with little to no effort.

Fit

Courage is a very, very average medium sized horse when it comes to fitting boots. Nothing weird about his sizing. (Lots weird about his opinions, but there's a whole Instagram devoted to that.) I got him the horse size and they fit exactly right. I loaned them to a friend for her tiny, spindly-legged critter and they spun like tops. There isn't a small horse or pony option I know of, but you can size up for bigger horses.
boots!
Basically, if your horse fits in average size open front boots (roma, eskadron, etc), these will be perfect.
hind boots fitted correctly
I will also say that the hind boots tend to fit a little lower on the hind legs than I expected. I tend to wrap pretty high up the cannon and these set 2-3" below where I would end a wrap, but since Courage interferes further down, it's really only an aesthetic thing and it doesn't bother me.

Durability

This is one thing I love about Courage--he actually does interfere, so we actually do test boots out. While most things I buy are a prettiness competition, boots are not.
gotta build the athlete
Within days of adjusting to wearing these boots, Courage wore through the external vinyl and padding on the hind boots. In case you're wondering, the hard shell is black. We can see it. The good news is that once that damage was done, it really hasn't gotten that much worse. The worn part is worn, the rest is fine.

That said, if your horse interferes a lot, I really can't recommend these. I keep using them to see how they're going to hold up and so far the wear hasn't affected function, but they definitely aren't as sturdy as other options on the market.

Value

This is a trickier thing to quantify. I tend to be more ok with shelling out for quality equipment than most people (see new boots for $55/pair, think "what a deal!" when others are like "omg so much $$"). Compared to comparable boots on the market, these are really well priced. There's the Eskadrons ($180/set), the Schockemohles (can't find link), the Horze model ($95/set), and the cool-colored-but-prohibitively-expensive-to-ship Pagony Anky model from Divoza (basically euro Dover, imho).
divoza boots on a very mismatched day

Obviously, the Centaur boots clock in as the cheapest bachelor on the market so if that's a thing you worry about (I did), then they're a good option to start out with.

Likes

Love the color, love the ease of use, love the pull tabs, love the funky fun design. 

Dislikes

The durability is a deal breaker for me. I enjoy these boots but am unlikely to replace them with a similar product.

Conclusion

boots!
These boots are fun, easily visible in dark indoor arena photography(!!), easy to clean and easy to store. If you have a horse that's not hard on boots, they'll probably last you a very long time and look sharp doing it. If your horse needs a little more protection, you'd be well advised to look for something more durable.
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