Friday, January 29, 2016

Just a Little Bad Romance

While talking to a horsey friend the other day, I realized that not everyone spends as much time in bookstores as I do. More specifically, some of you are missing out on the hilarity that is cover art for romance novels featuring horses. Without further ado, I bring you these gems from the internet:

bitch rides that horse like a couch. also is she like 7 feet tall?
yes, that is totally how reins work
definitely not racist
tiny man with compensation horse? read more to find out!
but how much longer does the left leg have to be to qualify for para?
no wonder the horse can only turn left, dumbass
question: does he even have a right leg?
how can crotchless people also be in romance novels? that seems contradictory

i really can't explain what's happening here. heavy reins there bud?

definitely how men respond to me in breeches
Thor on a Horse. ok now this i would watch.
Seriously. Dying. I realize that romance novel cover artists probably aren't paid well enough to be equestrians, but you'd think they covered basic anatomy in art school? Apparently not. Who else has some gems I should be aware of?

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Training the Sensitive Horse

Courage is a sensitive and complicated horse. I say that not to excuse his "bad" behavior, but to explain my training technique, if only to myself. I have been raised under good horse trainers and I appreciate the theory of what they do, most of the time.


Because horses are individuals and because sensitive, complicated horses are a world unto themselves, pretty much every gold standard for training has at least seven caveats when applied to my specific horse. And it's hard for me to admit that, because like or not, pretty much everyone who's anyone at training horses likes to take it upon themselves to explain to me why I am Wrong and Bad and what I am doing will Ruin My Horse.
um but great saddle pad. Thanks JenJ
And I know that my horse is my problem and I need to just let their opinions roll off and I know that despite whatever gospel most of them spew, once they were seated on my horse, they'd all pretty much do the same thing I'm doing, because it's the only bloody thing that works.

Bear in my that my absolute favorite quote about horse training is this: "Any behavior a horse offers is just information about how he feels. The only thing that makes that information good, bad, or indifferent is the importance we put on it."--Mark Rashid.
almost a year ago
In our 2.5 years together, Courage and I have worked with... four? No, I think five six different trainers. Each of them provided something different at a different time, but the one who has done the most in terms of really unlocking Courage's potential and putting us on a good path together is our current dressage trainer. She is a relentlessly kind and patient person and she has done wonders for Courage and I.

On our first hard schooling ride outside the other day, Courage and I were once again flailing and leaping across the arena. (Because trotting and changing bend. Omg.) And instead of just responding to it, I found myself feeling like a failure. I could see these ticker tapes running through my head simultaneously:


Right? All of those things are good general training principles. Forward is a great thing. Giving up at critical moments is piss poor horsemanship. Not addressing undesirable behaviors frequently makes them worse. Desensitization is the root of domestication. We can all agree on those things.

Well, all of us except Courage. Who remember, is sensitive, complicated, and outweighs me by a thousand pounds.
not afraid to express opinions
So for my specific horse, forward is not only NOT the answer, it's actually usually a terrible idea BECAUSE (hear me out), he knows all about frantic upside down running from the racetrack, and no one needs more of that in their lives. To him, going correctly and pushing more from behind is HARD and STRESSFUL and frequently results in leaving the scene in a mad leap/flail combo. If he's having a hard time with something and I push him forward, he will physically leave. Period. (I do hope that we can eventually change this, but that's where we're at right now).
no sense doing this faster
Items 2 & 3 on the list are highly linked--if your horse takes off flailing and leaping, it's fairly common to just keep kicking on so that he doesn't "get away with it", learns that it is uncomfortable, and that leaping doesn't get him out of work. AND I AGREE IN PRINCIPLE. But. In practice? No. Not with my horse. Again, let's look at his history. This horse was on the track for 6 years. He knows how to do a job. He has a FANTASTIC work ethic. And also, he's good at running. And also running in a panic is a kind of adrenaline surge that COMPLETELY changes what his brain is thinking about. So. Yes. Making him "run it off" or whatever has really only ever escalated the situation in a bad way AND TRUST ME I HAVE TRIED.
doesn't. work.
And then there's item 4. Desensitizing. Do it more. There's a definite merit to this idea, right? I mean, giant tractors can fly by 2" from Courage's nose and he doesn't even blink. The horse really isn't spooky. But. (See? All the caveats!) Think about that training quote for a minute. Courage flailing is Courage giving me information about how Courage feels. If how he feels is stressed out, overwhelmed, and trapped, how does me making him MORE stressed out, MORE overwhelmed, and MORE trapped make the situation any better or build his trust in me?


Right? Like it might sort of work, but the person doing it is definitely an asshole and you don't ever want to see them again.

So back to Courage. He flailed and leaped extravagantly across the (very large) outdoor arena. I got him pulled up with the help of the fence. Instead of kicking him forward and making him rodeo it out or jamming him back to trot and trying to provoke him to flail again, I calmly turned him around, walked off, and repeated what we were doing but at a slower gait. Over and over and over, to show him that he could do it. I rewarded him for trying, and he rewarded me by trying harder.

And then we trotted a small circle and trotted down the long side each direction, did a downward transition, and called it a day. It was the best quality trot I've had all year. I didn't re-address changing the bend at the trot. I didn't get after him for flailing. I didn't move on and push for more.

I'm not the be-all and end-all of horse trainers and I know that. All I can do is what works for myself and my sensitive, complicated horse. In my world, that means it's so much more productive to take a deep breath, slow things down, and explain again from the beginning.

If he's not getting it, doesn't that reflect more poorly on me as a teacher than on him as a student?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Mixing It Up

Lest it sound like I'm complaining, Courage and I have been busting our butts doing dressage stuff, and for the most part, it's going really well. The other night I had a (perfectly good) ride. It even included some of the best leg yields I've ever done, bar none.
plus so attractive

Courage and I were both just ON EDGE. The whole time. At one point, he blew a gasket randomly just to point out the problem. And it's not even that I'm riding with a lot of tension or asking for hard things or, well, anything. It's just that we've been so focused on Dressage and Goals and Important Stuff and even with our toodle-hacks around the indoor, things just weren't working for us.

I mean, I literally got off from a perfectly fine ride and wanted to have a melt down complete with tears, and I'm not a crying person.

So that's obviously productive.
totes a hunter get up LULZ
But then Saturday and Sunday, I rode with a fellow boarder who does the hunters at a proper barn most of the time and competes on the A circuit. I threw on jump tack and we pretended to be hunters with her. It certainly didn't hurt that our boarder friend was like "omg this horse needs to be a hunter". (I dunno how she looked past our sparkles and colors and clip job, but thanks boarder friend!)

I hadn't sat in my jump saddle in months and I'd forgotten how much fun it can be. We didn't even go over a pole, but I just really worked on staying balanced over Courage, pushing my hands forward and not worrying about the contact, and keeping my eyes very disciplined.
right lead!
We even got our first ride in the outdoor arena of the year on Sunday. Courage was SUPER. Our boarder-friend talked to us about some hunter flat work and we did some simple exercises and just rolled forward. Courage still had some extravagant airs, but neither of us got worked up about it.

It isn't a magic cure-all, but it was a great way for both of us to de-stress for a few days.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Teach Me Tuesday: Joint Injections

Here's a fun topic! How, when, and why do you choose (or not choose) to inject your sporthorse?

I used to get Cuna (late teens, hard-used OTTB gelding with a weak hind end) injected every 6 months and it did WONDERS for him. Seriously. He went from basically unable to use his back end to swinging and free and happy. Once I put it off a couple months because he needed $$$ joint help, but I felt like a pretty terrible human when we finally did make it in and his hocks were inflamed and uncomfortable.

I know Courage got plenty of injectable help on the track and I'm in no way opposed to that. It just means that I now own an 11 year old high mileage thoroughbred and especially in the cold winter weather, I'm starting to wonder if he'd benefit from some inter-articular relief.

So help me out. What sways you for for against injecting a horse's joint at any given time? Have you done it? Would you do it again?

Monday, January 25, 2016

Chasing Bronze: Meet First Level!

I have goals this year, which is great and all. I've been working towards them since mid-last eyen, which is hopeful. In an attempt to only learn three dressage tests this year (instead of 6!!) and simplify the pre-show ritual, I printed out my first level tests the other day.

Gettin' crazy up in here

Training level is pretty basic, right? You walk, trot, and canter, plus free walk, stretchy trot, and direction changes in the trot. Basically it's like a couple circles and arena laps and off you go.

So first level. How hard can it be?

I read the scary box labeled "PURPOSE" first.

"To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and in addition to the requirements of training level, has developed the thrust to achieve improved balance and throughness and maintains a more consistent contact with the bit."

Hm, ok. Correct basics now with more forward. Not sure about this throughness thing, but Dressage Queens talk about it, so maybe we'll figure it out as we go along. And hey! Our contact is roughly 19.5x better now than it was last year.

From this:
training level
To this:
schooling first
I dig that. I think we're going to be ok. Right? We knew it was getting harder here. That's the point of moving up.

But then each test introduces new movements. Conveniently, there is another text box at the top of the test that tells you what to expect to be added to the previous set of movements it's assumed you can do.
you know what they say about assumptions
So USEF First Level Test 1:

10m half circles at trot
15m circle in canter
lengthening of stride in trot and canter

A couple deep breaths, right? Half circles are something we've worked on. I know we can do the 15m circle. The lengthenings aren't there, but Courage is getting stronger and more broke and we're going to need those canters to jump anyways, yeah? We can probably do this.

Then USEF First Level Test 2:

Leg Yield

I've been leg yielding horses since I was a kid. This seems pretty innocuous. OR WELL. IT DID, but then I was watching Marissa's youtube channel because I needed to see the tests (bear in mind, I haven't actually READ them yet) and I realized that the harmless lil' "leg yield" is actually LEG YIELD FROM THE WALL TO X AND THEN ALL THE WAY BACK ON ONE LONG SIDE LIKE SOME SORT OF LATERAL BEASTMODE CRAZY PERSON.


I don't really have the capacity to react more than that. Pretty freaking intense if you ask me. I was hoping that move was reserved for like "people who are actually good at this" and not just "people who are starting out but a little bit terrified right now".

So there's that. But maybe we can still figure this out, right? I mean. A year+ of prep, right? It's only first level, right? I want this, right?
back when we could ride outside
Buuuuut that brings us to USEF First Level Test 3:

10m circle at trot
Change of lead through the trot
Counter Canter


Uh yeah so for some reason I was laboring under the misconception that Counter Canter was like a 2nd level move? No. Apparently first level. And 10m is not very many meters on a 16+ hand Thoroughbred OH AND if you go watch Marissa do the 1-3 test, her change of lead through the trot is like one stride and perfect. ONE STRIDE.

I'm over here like "on our good days, he doesn't try to kill me when we canter" and OMG BRAIN OVERLOAD.
just because i like this picture
Ahhhhhhhhh this is a lot harder than I was expecting. When I first read this, I pretty much had a complete brain melt. Then I went and rode my horse and even with the winter crazies, we could do 10m trot circles and my canter transitions have VASTLY improved.

So maybe there's hope?

PS Many thanks to Marissa for letting me watch her videos to get a feel for the level. She and Tucker are BOSSES and our role models.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Horsemanship, Relationships, and Success: A Closer Look

Alyssa came out and took some BEAUTIFUL pictures of Courage and I the other day.
right? how did she do this in an indoor??
Well let's back up.

First level is stressing me out. Mostly in a good way, but it's there. Even with an indoor, it's hard to ride in the winter. It's impossible to be consistent, and 85% of the time, I'm more concerned with relaxation than actually doing anything interesting (though when I word it that way, it actually seems like a good thing).
we've come a long ways in two years
I am a very driven, motivated person, especially with a big goal and a deadline staring me in the face. That makes it hard to accept that three days a week, I just toodle around the indoor on the buckle and chat with friends to give Courage a physical and mental break. I want to just WORK WORK WORK GIT 'ER DONE all day every day to super-extra-double guarantee that we don't embarrass ourselves at shows this year.

But I can't.

My horse would go nuts.

More importantly, I'd burn both of us out and change riding from a hobby that I enjoy to an all-consuming task that isn't fun for anyone.

And no one wants that, really.

So when Alyssa came out and took some beautiful pictures of us the other day, it was an amazing reminder of what I'm building with Courage. Not just pie-in-the-sky goals. Not just a vehicle to chase an arbitrary award from a bureaucratic organization that really is just in it for the money. That isn't what first attracted me to horses. If and when we achieve it, that won't be the pinnacle of why I'm here. I came to horses because I want more.

A relationship with a living being.

A partnership between predator and prey.

A subversion of the natural order of things in a way so simple and beautiful that it defies explanation.

Horses bring out that which is most in us--cruel people are made crueler and kind people are made kinder, all from the influence of the horse. They are a breathing thousand-pound microscope highlighting all that which is strongest in us.

And to me, the most and dearest and best thing is that relationship, that partnership. Not the awards. Not the satin. Not the glory.

It's going into his stall and breathing in the essential aura of horse. It's knowing that despite our disparate backgrounds--predator vs prey--centuries of blue blood vs middle class girl from nowhere--we can come together and be something more than just the sum of ourselves.

Something indefinably beautiful, even if only to ourselves.

I know everyone else sees a stiff old warhorse, a washed-up racehorse, a lower level dressage horse that's never going to "amount" to anything. He's a failed event horse. A creature too difficult for the average ammy and too old and plain to interest top talent.

That's not what I see. To me, Courage has become one of the most beautiful and amazing horses to ever grace the planet. I see the fanciest horse I've ever been lucky enough to call mine. I see soft brown eyes and a fighting spirit. A worthy partner. A fellow creature who challenges me to be the very best version of myself, every single day. He's someone who pushes me. Someone who makes me try. Someone who reminds me every day that success isn't counted in year-end points or national awards or public recognition.
Success is waking up every day and being proud of who I am. Proud of who I'm becoming. Success is doing all the hard work behind the scenes that no one will ever see or appreciate to create the groundwork of the person that I've always wanted to be. Success is going to bed at night satisfied with the life I lived that day.

Success is so much more than horse shows.
I still want my bronze medal. I'm still going to panic about not being ready and if I'm good enough and if I've trained Courage correctly and ALL the minutiae that's tied up in this silly sport of ours.

But if we never show again, never garner another ridiculously overpriced piece of $2 satin, I already know I've achieved everything I came here for.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Winter Rider

If you keep up with my instagram feed, you might have noticed that it basically looks like all I do is lunge and turn my horse loose in the arena.
the horse, it flies
And that's sort of true.

The ground is alternately frozen solid and dangerously iced over or disgusting soup. Courage doesn't get turned out in soup and he won't play on the ice, so the better part of my equine schedule right now is just simple brain management--free time in the indoor to leap around or structured lunging to try and make something productive happen when other people are riding.

It's not my favorite, but it's the reality of a thoroughbred in the winter.
hard to complain about this
Courage HAS TO HAVE his run around time or his brain just can't stay in his head. Plus it's cold and he's a high-mileage 11 years old this year, and the first few minutes of every day are just kind of stiff no matter what. Not having the opportunity to spend hours roaming a field is definitely exacerbating the situation.

I can't fix those things. What I can do is make better choices. 3-4x a week, I try to time my barn visits so Courage can get to run like an idiot in the indoor arena. That helps. At least half of our rides are just toodling on the buckle and chatting with buddies in the indoor. This keeps rides from being tense or spooky. It keeps us both loose and breathing. It's not fantastic training, but it's translating to calmer rides overall.
too cute
I know some people like to just get on and ride through the yahoos, but I don't. I don't enjoy it, I don't need the risk of harm, and I don't want to get in a fight with my horse over something that doesn't have to happen. Instead of worrying about my personal safety, I can laugh at his antics and then give him scratches when he's done. He's a horse. He needs to horse. That is fine.
if you're counting, this is two different coolers in the same post
So yeah. For days and weeks at a time, it feels like I'm just treading water and surviving. But then we have days where Courage runs until he's steaming with no encouragement from me, I tack him up in a cooler, and then we have a fantastic ride, because he's got his game face on and is ready to focus now.
Inch by inch, we're gaining ground.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Chasing Bronze: Memberships

not as sexy as leather
This is a new series I'm starting to document Courage and I working towards our Bronze medal in dressage. That means we need two scores of 60% or better from two different judges at first, second, and third level.

We're currently training-level-schooling-first, and we're looking to move up to first level this show season.

But before all that, what do we have to do to be eligible for the USDF Bronze Medal program?

This year, I want to show at the nearby USDF recognized show and then at 1-2 more GMO recognized shows, plus as many schooling shows as I can squeeze in. If I don't get bronze scores at the big recognized show, I am considering traveling to another show, but that's very $$$ and time dependent.


Step 1: Become a USDF member. 

USDF= United States Dressage Federation. There are lots of levels of memberships. A participating membership of USDF is the most expensive at $75 a year or $300 for 5 years. Here's the rub: the participating membership does not include local GMO membership. GMO membership allows me to support the local dressage community and schooling shows, qualify for local awards in a pool of riders I can get to know, and still gives me eligibility for those bronze medal scores that I really, really want. GMO membership is NOT enough to participate in the regional championships. Fun fact: championships are wicked expensive, it's our first year showing, and even if we qualified, I just don't think we'd be competitive. While I might want to have regionals as a goal at a later date, it's just not in the cards for me this year.

While I will not be participating in the regional championships this year, I'd like to think I might qualify for something at the local level. (don't rain on my parade, ok?)

The GMO membership gives me all the benefits I need.

Cost: $45
we're members of a national organization!
Step 2: Get Courage a USDF number

This makes sense to me. In order to track horses at national-level competitions, the USDF assigns them a number. It's either $25 for a horse identification number that lasts one year or $95 for a lifetime registration number. The lifetime registration makes the horse eligible to compete for year end awards on a national level against people on fancy imported warmbloods who show a hell of a lot more than I do, so that's not a factor for me.

More importantly, if I pay the lifetime fee once, I don't have to dink around with it and if I show for 4 or more years on this horse, I will actually be money ahead.

That said, I might HATE dressage shows or something, so let's not get ahead of ourselves. Also there's my weird jinx thing.

Cost: $25

So far, so good, right? Neither of those are too cost-prohibitive.
i feel blurry, oh so blurry
Step 3: Join USEF. 

USEF= United States Equestrian Federation. This step is stupid to me. USEF is the national body regulating all horse sport. If I complete the above steps, I am technically eligible to show at USDF shows, BUT if I want my coveted ammy status, I have to shell out for a USEF membership. It's $55 a year. Ammies are eligible for different awards than pros and our qualifying scores are slightly lower (and then I don't have to compete against people who ride fancy horses for a living).

I could forego this step and pay the non-member fee, but that's $30 a day and of course a weekend USDF show is actually two shows at the same facility with different judges, so $60 a weekend. At this point, I'm only planning on one* "real" USDF show to avoid travel, but that $60 would be per weekend. If I were to add another show, it would only get worse.


*Or two. Or three.

Cost: $55

Step 4: Get Courage a USEF number.

Once I have paid my USEF membership fee, I need a USEF number for Courage. I have options here: I can shell out $200 for a lifetime number which national year-end-award eligibility because my 11 year old OTTB warhorse is TOTALLY going to beat out some Grand Prix star's fancy young thing (snort). No. Or I can pay $75 a year for the same privilege. OR I can just get a recording number that is free.

If you have a fancy young thing, by all means, pay up. If you're me, save your dollars. Lulz.

Cost: $0
All told, this isn't as bad as I thought it would be. For $125, Courage and I are registered and eligible to begin the competition year.

Sources for further reading:

Dressage Memberships - blogger Karen is an absolutely invaluable resource here. She has done ALL her research and is fantastic at answering questions.

USDF Rider Awards - official USDF info is pretty accessible.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Teach Me Tuesday: The Too Tight Girth

on not under
Here's a thing about me: I really have no concept of what a too-tight girth is. People be like "I wouldn't want my girth too tight" and I'm just like "bitches, I have had a saddle roll on me 3 times and that is three really bad experiences I DO NOT WANT to repeat".

So I really don't ever worry about getting my girth too tight. I'm not asking for maximum athletic achievement here. I just want to not end up under the horse.

long girth, short girth, saddle staying on
But I see things like this article floating around and in general, I think Dr. Hilary Clayton has good things to say.

Is that normal? Do people worry about too-tight girths? How would you know if your girth was too tight anyways?

Monday, January 18, 2016


Well. This is it. The year I've been planning for.

And yes, now that I've said that, I fully 100% realize that my life is from here out jinxed.

Last year, Courage and I hit the event derby series and garnered a GIANT year end award, which was a serious bucket list item for me. I'd love to repeat that at crossrails this year, BUT the whole goal of the last year was to get Courage going as a dressage horse and get him exposed to shows


we could show at first level this year.


And get our bronze medal scores.

Double gulp.
so much dressage
SO. Here's what my tentative schedule looks like for now (the local calendar is not yet complete, so some dates are invented.):


(hopefully a schooling show in April--failing that, we will haul somewhere to do a lesson and get him out)


May 7-8 Spring dressage show at OUAH. First 1 and probably first 3. This is a non-recognized outing that will hopefully give us that first level feel. And also hopefully not completely freak us out. I want to do both days and really work on my test riding/show warm up to learn what I need to do for the best results possible.

We will then skip the AMAZING AND EXCITING sounding cool new derby the next weekend because A) I only have so much money and B) I need to not wear Courage out completely because then... KIDDING WE WILL DO IT CUZ I CANT DECIDE

May 21-22 Idaho Dressage Festival! Probably first 1 and 3 as well. This is our big hurrah--USDF recognized and all. Need all the $$$ memberships and I really don't want to know how much this will cost me. I plan to stable on the grounds and hopefully not completely lose my marbles.

Ok once that's over with...

June 11-12 League Dressage show at AEB. Again, probably first 1 and 3 unless we're failing a lot or I feel a burning urge to do 2. This is also run concurrently with an event derby that we could cross enter into. Crossrails? Maybe.

June 17-19 Boise River Dressage at OUAH. I need to do some research here. I'm tempted to do the opportunity classes because they count towards league show year end points, but I'll also have all my memberships and could show recognized. I really need to find out if I don't get my Bronze scores in May if I could try to get them here. I don't know and that would change how I approach this show.
this post needs satin
Looks like we'll decompress in July (which is good because the summer doldrums are real), then head on into August:

August 6-7 League dressage show in Filer. Again, this depends. It's a 2+ hour drive and if I haven't done the other league shows, it's probably not worth it. On the other hand, any chance at year-end swag sounds good to me. We'll see where I'm at and how broke I am.

September: There's a cheaper-but-crazy jumper show on the 10th or a spendier-but-nice jumper show on the 24th. If Courage is jumping well and I'm feeling up to it, we might hit one of these. I really like the timing here--we'll have had all summer to get going and see if jumping is something we can do well this year or not.

October 1-2 Fall league dressage show at AEB. First level tests. This is being run concurrently with the derby series we did last year, which makes me think about cross entering. We will see, but it's unlikely my budget will support chasing two different year end awards in two different sports. Maybe. Maybe. I do love swag.
and friends with satin
Haha the more I write, the more I want to try and do the derbies too. I really can't justify the one in May--it's right before our big big show and I don't want Courage to be tired headed in to that.

Or do I? I DON'T KNOW. Obviously, this whole thing is flexible. A lot of my scheduling is going to depend on getting more answers as to how the league shows work and how the bronze scores go and if I think I have a shot at a local year end award at first level recognized (lol a girl can dream) or if the league is really where it's at for us this year.

So. I will figure out memberships and awards and STUFF and try to get this firmed up. GAH NOW SO NERVOUS.

And just because I need to put this out there: Courage and I had incredible success at intro and training level last year. I realize that doesn't/isn't/won't translate straight across to kicking all the ass at first level this year, especially as we try to move up in terms of both level and quality of competition. All my talk about year end awards is just because winning one was SO MUCH FUN and I'd never done it before and it would be mind-blowingly-amazing to pull off a repeat.

Doesn't mean I think we're in contention. Not even close.
but it sure is inspiring
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