Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Magical Thinking Cap

I had a birthday recently and hubs (with assistance from Lindsey and Alyssa) got me a beautiful horse tiara. Since I put it on (one of) our bridles, I have had only amazing and magical rides with Courage.  

You doubt?

This was ride #1.

It was amazing. And magical. There's even video.

Then I had another ride! (No video, but omg. We turned right. We turned left. It moved me, Bob.)
let's look at another pic from day one
So that's pretty great. I really, really don't like to drill Courage on the dressage and after two solid days, it was time to mix things up. I pulled him out Monday morning and we decided to tackle something we're historically ALWAYS bad at:

dun dun dun


For real. The reason I quit jumping this horse is that he sees an obstacle, his whole body goes tight(er than it already was) and he launches at it. It's bad. It's that scary horse you avert your eyes from at the show type stuff. So when people were like "do trot poles to loosen his topline", I was like:
fo real
Trot poles are a great idea. FOR OTHER PEOPLE.

Anyways. We reattempted trot poles, but now with our magical sparkly thinking cap. Well ok first we wamred up on the lunge:
just needed an excuse to share this shot
 Then we started with one trot pole and worked our way up to three each direction.
Wow. Wow. YOU GUYS. We went slow with lots of reassurance and were VERY intentional about each step. Anytime he thought about rushing or getting frantic, we went back to walk, but you know what?


That's a first.

So thrilled with this little horse right now. Omg. <3
he's pretty impressed
So obviously, the browband works.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Principles of Trust

I call Courage a special snowflake and I mean it (homeboy got a new girth because he start biting the old one), but I truly believe that in most ways, he's just a more-expressive version of a totally normal horse. 
because reasons

I mean, I'm in awe of the number of times I've told people "Oh C doesn't deal with X" and they immediately respond with "well you just have to force him". And when I tell them that I don't believe in forcing him (and neither does he), I then get told I simply need to use MORE force.

Whoa. No. Slow your roll. Back the hell up.

See, Courage is definitely a challenging horse. That we can agree on. I've found some guiding principles that really helped me progress and move forward with him.

1) It starts with trust.

For Courage, this is HUGE. I can't begin to emphasize it enough. He's strong minded and independent and he took care of himself physically on the racetrack for a very long time. His track connections called him aloof, and they were right. He's a very closed off horse who's slow to make connections and trust is a precious commodity. That's not because he was treated poorly. The horse lived like a king.

He's just also very, very sensitive and the way he coped with track life was by shutting everyone else out.

So before I could get anywhere with him, he had to learn that he could trust me. That wasn't an overnight process. Think more like 2 years. Seriously. Looking back, there are some things I maybe would have done differently, but on the whole, this required just a very slow, methodical approach that included setting consistent boundaries and being very, very patient.

and lots of over-the-top photoshoots
2) Never damage trust.

Perhaps you've heard the maxim "the only emotions that belong in the saddle are patience and a sense of humor". This is SO TRUE. Courage learns at Courage speed and that speed varies from day to day. Sometimes we take giant leaps forward. Sometimes we go running backwards. Mostly, we just inch along, day by day.

No matter what, I have to be his emotional center. Calm, relaxed, supportive.

I know as ammies we get so wrapped up in "success" and that frequently just ends up damaging the horse. With Courage, I've learned that bolting and flailing and leaping all just represents him mentally checking out and protecting himself. I took a lot of flak for refusing to punish him for his perceived "bad" behavior, but you know what?

He trusts me now. He knows that if says "I can't right now", I'll listen to him. I'll accept his quiet "please stop" and give him a different option that he can do.

It's really not profound. It's just not being a dick to a horse who's trying very hard.

3) Always build trust.

For us, this meant completely throwing my timeline and goals out the window. I wanted to go out and compete at first level this year and Courage has all the right skills to do it.

But you know what?

He wasn't ready. He told me quietly and then he told me loudly. It's hard to accept that instead of going to the annual banquet and collecting my fancy satin, I'll just shell out and have to explain why I don't jump or show (again), but that's not why I'm here.

Instead, we've spent all summer meticulously building strength and muscle memory. I know that Courage can do first level, but now he's starting to believe it.

Yeah, I could have maybe done the same thing at shows, but instead of picking fights with him and putting him back on the defensive, we did it piece by piece, alone at home. Pressure off, no one watching.
and over and over and over

Courage really is an amazing horse--for as aloof as he seemed to be, he's probably one of the most relational horses I've ever been around. These things are important for any horse, but they're doubly important to him. He's definitely pushed me to improve as a horseman, but he's also pushed me to improve as a human.

He's taught me to stay calm in the storm, to always ask why, and to be steady when everything else falls apart. He's not the horse for everyone, but the more time I spend with him, the more I realize that the reward with this horse isn't the yards of satin he might eventually bring home, but rather every step of the journey we share together.

He isn't a means to an end. He's my partner.

So when I hear "just force him", I'm appalled. I've spent so long building Courage's trust in me and his confidence in himself. To force him would be to undo everything I've done and everything we've built together.
yeah i just love this picture

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Meet Otto

I was bragging the other day about how I'd been so good about not buying tack lately, and then I realized I bought dressage boots, two pairs of breeches, fancy bath products, a girth, and even bandage liners. But really. Not that many things. And some of those things were needed! The breeches were $15/each and winter weight, the bath products were because our climate requires specific care, the girth was because SOMEONE decided leather is now a no-go and the bandage liners were to hit a minimum purchase and get a discount+free shipping. Plus they're a brand I don't have and I can do a review later maybe.

Right? Totally justified.

My real obsession is bridles though and I haven't bought a bridle.... I dunno. In a long time. Bought some pieces this spring, but I think my last whole bridle was like.... 2015?? Picture of moderation here.

Anyways I dragged Lindsey over to the local consignment place, but the owner was out and she'd just gotten back from a show. So because we are grown adults who are good at patience, we let ourselves in and dug through boxes and rearranged things. I managed to talk myself out of a nice cob-size hunter bridle given that C is not and will not become a hunter.

But then we found it.
the mark of Otto
See, if you're a dressage tack nerd at all (cough), you'll know that Otto Schumacher is freaking hot right now. You'll also know that those bridles run $500-800 before customization and that they are the cutting edge of white padding and patent and custom colors and all that stuff. Also if you know all those things, you'll know that this is a super-retro traditional-crown model that probably stepped off the shelf what in the 90s? At the latest?
Anyways. I'm enough of a tack nerd to know those things off the top of my head and I'm also enough of a nerd to know that Courage is a size one Otto and that's what it was. Plus it was for an amazing price. And someone had taken amazing care of it. 

And I wanted it. 

I made grabby hands, put it down, walked away, came back, took measurements, walked away, and hoped I'd forget about it when the consignment store owner was like "lulz just take it on trial", WHICH I DID. 

I really, really wanted to hate it because there are definitely other things to spend money on. But. I had to try it on, right? THERE WAS NO OTHER OPTION. 
It's a unique look for sure--I actually didn't know Otto made this model. I've seen a couple old-school stubbens that had the braid on the nose and brow, but they did brown braid, which did nothing for me. This is solid black and a little bolder than the stubben look. Also Otto. 

I feel super hipster-y and weird saying this, but I kind of love it. Love how it smells, love how it feels in my hands, love how it looks on my horse. It's different without being too different. It's fun without distracting from him. 
Side by side with my fancy white-padded bridle, you can see that it's actually very similar in terms of strap width and structure. Courage has a very specific face and lots of things look stupid on him. This bridle works. 

It's not like anything I've ever had before. I don't know if it's retro enough to be cool right now anyways, but I enjoy the look and it's fun to have Otto in the barn.
And in case you're wondering, my personal limit for bridles is 6 per horse and no, we aren't over the limit right now. We have Otto, the Red Barn, the Frankenbridle, the dressage Franken, and a western bridle which almost doesn't count. Plus a loaner drop bridle, which definitely doesn't count.

Welcome to the collection, Otto.

Monday, August 22, 2016

This One Time, I Jumped My Horse

If you've been around here long enough, you probably remember how I desperately wanted Courage to be a jumper.

Needless to say, we gave that up.

I do try to pop over jumps from time to time, but last time I tried that, it was the definition of a shit show and set our training back several weeks. I just dropped it. Courage can jump and is pretty honest, but he DOESN'T want to be a jumper and he's been VERY clear about that.

But then Lindsey got a fancy new French monoflap jump saddle and I just HAD to get some butt time with that thing.
plus hadn't tried her pink stirrups
It's too small for me and the flap is all wrong, but OMG you guys I've always said a monoflap was my dream jump saddle and now I've sat in one and it really, really is.

I felt so balanced and secure and happy. It was amazing. I really focused on keeping Courage loose through his topline because his default over fences is to get jammed up and pissed off, and well...
requisite first jump back
His first jump is always exuberant and this was no exception, but look! That's not terrible.

We played with the tiny crossrail until he got a little bored.

I felt so great. Confident. Happy. Not a single twinge of nerves. So much of riding this horse is mental and wow it is huge to be able to ride through things without him trying to check out on me.

I even asked Lindsey to raise the jump and I got this:
apparently i now have a kickass auto release so that's cool
look who can land in balance without pissing off
loose rein pats for a good boy
French saddles are magic, people. It's a good thing I already sold my soul for the Precious because that means I can't buy my own but if you see me on a street corner, think nothing of it and just keep driving. We have no plans to be jumpers at this point, but it was fun to mix it up and omg SADDLE.

As JenS pointed out (it's not fair when tiny pony people who do dressage also have the same name, but I digress JenJ), all the dressage is starting to pay off for Courage over fences. He's finally learned to give through his topline and gained a lot of strength and flexibility, where he used to reply on sheer athleticism and attitude.

He's still not going to be a jumper, but as someone who enjoys dabbling in lots of things, I love the opportunity to actually enjoy myself over jumps.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

One Step At A Time

So here's a thing that's messed up:

I realized that I'm more comfortable sharing fail pictures than successes on my own blog.

That's not ok with me.
this was.... not planned
Courage and I fail frequently and flamboyantly and I am happy to share those moments. They're hilarious. They're encouraging. They're humanizing. Whatever. That's great.

It's easy to fail. It's easy to point out what's wrong with this picture.

It's easy to sit here and say "oh yeah we ALL know what's wrong with that". Everyone can unite seeing me doing something wrong.

You know what's hard?

Making a horse from the ground up. Doubly so if you're dealing with a lot of baggage (like you know, six years of track life). Day in and day out, doing the unglamorous, repetitious things that take a horse from tense and flighty to rideable and interesting. It's hard work. (And also, if you blog about doing this work, you will find out that literally everyone on the internet is apparently better at it than you are, at least in their own minds. Fascinating, amiright.)

And see, horses don't learn in giant leaps and bounds by magic, not really. They learn like we do--one tiny baby step at a time.

So when I look at a picture of Courage like this, I think: "Wow look at my little ex-racer. He's pushing from behind and almost tracking up. His nose is on the vertical, his mouth is closed, and the muscle definition is in all the right places. Even the arch in his tail is telling me that he's using his topline."

Then I think, "hm this horse struggles with holding tension in the base of his neck and even at this relatively nice moment, he's just a little hollow there. That tells me I'm asking him to come a little more "up" in his front end than he's ready for at this precise moment and I need to ride him a little deeper and keep building the strength behind to allow him to really sit and lift without getting stuck or hollow."

And then, hey, I look at stuff like this:

Moments from the same ride as the previous shot, and I say "here he's definitely using the base of his neck well and giving me softness in his topline. These shots confirm that he needs to stay deeper and that I need to incorporate canter work as he's mentally up to it to really develop the horse I want to be riding in six months or a year."

Furthermore, because he's my horse and I see him every day, I can add in shots like this:

And then I look at him and say "all I really care about in these is the base of Courage's neck. In the first shot, you can obviously see how the trot/canter/trot transitions are helping him as long as I keep them slow and thoughtful. The second shot, I'd like him to be more forward and less on the forehand ideally, but I'll take it because he's thinking and figuring out how to use his body in a new way that's hard for him. I know that pushing him too forward right now will just set us back, so I'm willing to take the time he needs to learn to do this correctly."

I mean, sure, it's easy to look at the progress/training pictures and pick them apart. "Hollow. Lacking impulsion. Whatever.", but doing that overlooks the step-by-step process it took to get where we are. Looking at these pictures with no knowledge of my horse, it's easy to say "damn girl why do you ever ride in a gait other than canter because it's obviously his best?"
not. helpful.

But no. That's all backwards. I was thrilled to celebrate with fellow blogger the Eventing Saddlebred recently when she and her guy did their first somewhat-planned canter because I KNOW WHAT IT'S LIKE. Canter is a hot-button issue for a horse like Courage. All he knows is how to invert and run and get hollow and make his stride two inches long. Every time we've gotten near the canter in the last two years, we've basically dropped back to walk and started over because he couldn't take it.

So where one person sees his canter as his best gait, I know it took this long to get the canter where it is and he's still not ready to offer it every day. We only canter when I know that we can do it well, because there is no point to cantering him badly. Even when we do canter, I keep it to just a circle or two and focus on quality transitions and covering the ground and building strength, which is a long, slow, gradual process.
sass tail means hard work
So yeah. When I post pictures of Courage looking a little hollow or not quite forward or WHATEVER, it's not because I'm a blooming idiot who can't see our obvious flaws. It's because I know my little guy and I'm so damn proud of how far he's come and how hard he tries and the partnership that we're building together.

The other day, he did his first steps of haunches in at the walk, and no, they weren't show quality. But you know what? Because of the partnership we've built together, he tried something new and hard and different that he theoretically has all the building blocks to do. He didn't get it the first time or the second time, or even the third time, and when he did "get" it, we just did a step or two, then I immediately praised him and moved on.

Last year, new information meant turning himself inside out and NOPING into the next county. This year? He's trying for me.

You guys.



Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Reflections on Courage

To say that Courage and I have had our ups and downs together would be rather an understatement.

When he came to me, I was broken. I was learning hard life lessons and letting go of the horse that completely changed my life.
October 2013

Courage waited for me. He was quiet and easy and simple.

Then I got stronger, and he let loose.
March 2014
We worked through hard things and focused on Courage-specific issues. Things got better. We had good rides.

October 2014
March 2015
And so it's gone in cycles with him--good times and bad times. I've said before that I thought Courage came to me for a reason, and it's fascinating to look at how we've developed. This spring, Courage was a complete disaster and pushed all my buttons again. At the time, it was maddening. Infuriating. Why couldn't the stupid horse just be easy and let me go win ribbons and look successful? Why was EVERY GODDAMNED DAY harder than the last one? WHY couldn't he just. quit. pushing.  
May 2016
But he didn't. And instead of an emphasis on satin and show success this year, life circumstances forced me to grow and push myself as a human being.

The whole experience really refocused me as a horseman. I had to consider the mental/emotional side of training and cement the zen-master-status I've been working on. No matter what, I have to be the still center of the storm. I have to not only accept what he throws at me, but calmly and proactively move towards what I want at whatever speed he can handle on that day.

Sometimes that means walking. Stopping. Getting off. Going backwards in training until we find a point we can agree on and accepting "good enough" for the day instead of pushing for more. It means letting go of what people think of us or what I want for us and just accepting what happens in a day. It means meeting Courage where he's at and rewarding what he can give me, even if it looks little and pathetic to everyone else outside us.

When I walk through the front gate at the barn, I let go of everything that's wrong with life outside it and 100% focus on Courage and what he needs and who he needs me to be.

That's what I got out of this spring.

And now again, the tables have turned. Courage has stabilized, and while other things fall apart, I realized that my little bay horse has given me a mighty gift.

That incredible zen experience--no matter what, I walk through that front gate and all my focus is on Courage. I can't always push the other things down far enough to make riding a good idea, but he meets me where I'm at and accepts who I am each day, even if it looks pathetic to everyone else. He reminds me to focus on him and he gives me his best effort without judgement.

Some days his best effort is making me laugh hysterically at his antics on the lunge, other times it's marveling at how far he's come under saddle as he offers me his new personal best of something hard we're working on.

Courage isn't just the spunky bay horse in the barn. It's a state of mind. A willingness to keep on trying when things are hard and believe against all odds that no matter what, we'll come through on the other side. Maybe not unscathed, but definitely stronger and better for the experience.

In moments like these, I realize just how much I really need Courage.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Until We Meet Again

Today, I sat down to write a post about riding my horse. (He's doing great. I'm really excited.)
And then I realized that I'm just not in a place mentally or emotionally where I can take the hate from internet idiots who either can't, don't, or won't ride their own horse but apparently have a firm grasp of the ONE TRUE WAY that I ought be riding mine (because I'm obviously a failure at it on my own.)

So I thought I'd write a post unrelated to me or my horse about whatever random horse shit I think up. I mean, I watched the Extreme Mustang Makeover last weekend (super impressive!) and audited an Alfredo Hernandez clinic (so interesting!) and either (or both) of those would make great content. I even have cool media to go along with both.
100 days off the range and one cool customer
light is magic
But ultimately, I blog to share my journey with other people, not because I needs stats or comments or page views or ad clicks (fun fact: I make $0 on this blog and have since the beginning). No one pays me to sit here and think stuff up to talk about and it's a lot of work to pour in to something just for fun.

And frankly, it's not super fun to get publicly and privately eviscerated by internet idiots, though it does on occasion make for some hilarious jokes. (Ask me how my ride was. JOYLESS. rofl.)
teeny dog has spunk enough for both of us
So congratulations, internet idiots. You win this round. For non-blogging reasons, I am not in a place where I can deal with your hate and let it roll off like I usually do. (And also wtf who spends time reading blogs they hate just to hate on them? like. don't you have literally anything else to do? i don't sit in your living room to tell you why you're a failure every day. even if i hate you. i have a life.)

I'm sure I'll disappoint the haters eventually and be back full strength. I'll still be checking in as I have things I want to share, and to the great people I've met along the way, stay in touch!
signing out
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