Friday, August 23, 2019

To Show or Not to Show

The sun was beating down on me like I was an ant under a magnifying glass.  The air was hazy with heat, humidity, and dust.  All I could think was, "How am I here?"  I'd had plenty of time and a perfectly reasonable suite of acceptable excuses to use.  And yet, there I was, sitting in a pool of my own sweat.  I was miserable.  I felt like each breath was an effort.  I wanted nothing more than to be away from that place.  I silently cursed Mother Nature for the cloudless sky.  Seconds later, a breeze blew by, and at first, I was thankful, anticipating a small respite from the suffocating heat.  Until my skin registered that the air in the breeze was actually hotter than the surrounding air.  I mentally gave Mother Nature the finger and reflected on my poor decision-making skills.

There is this part of me that keeps expecting me to develop wisdom as I get older.  I mean, the more experiences I have, the better I should be at exercising sound judgment, right?

Well, as it turns out, that part of me continues to be disappointed with each passing year.  In June something happened that started a chain of events that could only end in sweaty disappointment.  And yet, the wise part of me was too quiet and apparently went off for a drink somewhere and didn't return until it was too late.

If you've been following my blog for awhile, you may remember this particular show, which went fine in terms of score and placing, but I was traumatized by it.  The heat (OMG, the unrelenting sun!), Nimo's stiffness and general something-isn't-quite-right movement, and show nerves combined left me convinced I would never show again, even though when I wrote the post, I must have thought I would show again.  I had started working on Science of Motion with Nimo just before the show, and it didn't take me long to realize that showing just wasn't going to be for us.

Of course, that is what I had said after I went to this show back in 2014 (part 1 and part 2).  Actually, I think in my blog posts, I said it was a good idea because it highlighted some things we needed to work on, blah, blah, blah.  Which was probably my attempt at putting a positive spin on what I believe I referred to as our "worst ride ever."  As of today, all I really remember is being really hot and that my mouth was really dry and I sincerely regretted ever stuffing myself into white breeches.  (I mean, what IS that?  WHY, oh WHY, would WHITE breeches be the clothing of choice for showing a HORSE???)

So anyway, suffice it to say that I don't really have any positive memories of showing Nimo.  We have had some dressage tests that went well in terms of score and/or placing, and we've had at least a couple of shows where I wondered why we were allowed to appear in public.  And that was a big part of my issue with showing - our inconsistency.  I never knew how Nimo would act and I always felt like I was pushing us too hard at the show to "get the movement."  It was stressful (and almost always hot, so hot...).  Plus, I always felt constrained by the rules for proper attire and tack.  I never felt comfortable or like myself.

And so at some point after our last show in August 2016, I swore off showing for good.  It didn't matter if it was conventional dressage or western dressage.  Neither one was a good idea.  And definitely showing in August was not a good idea.  I mean, August in northern Virginia is easily a substitute for Hell.

But then something happened in June that reduced my perceived wisdom on this particular subject to rubble.  It was nothing, really.  A friend of mine knew a lady who wanted to compete in a dressage show on a horse owned by someone my friend knew.  The horse had some expert training in dressage (and maybe eventing) earlier in his life, but had since been a pleasure horse for many years.  The owner was open to having other people ride him to help keep him in work, and my friend made the connection between the owner and the rider.  Shortly after the rider had been riding the horse, plans were made to take the horse to a schooling show.  At this schooling show, said horse and rider did very well, getting a good score and winning their division (Introductory Level).

I am not very proud of my reaction.  It went something like this, "Are you KIDDING me?  This lady rode this horse like 6 or 8 times, has never ridden dressage before, and went to a show and won?"  I mean, come on!  How does that happen?  I come from the school of thought where if you don't feel like giving up 100 times and want to crawl in a hole and die at least 15 times, the thing is not worth doing.  (I will note that I curse this school of thought on a regular basis and constantly try - unsuccessfully - to convert myself into the school of thought that makes things easy.)

I felt petty and mean-spirited about my reaction, and I thought it would go away.  The wise part of me kept saying things like, "The horse had been professionally trained and competed at a much higher level, so of course Intro Level would be easy."  The petty part of me thought, "But he hasn't competed for years, so wouldn't the horse need some dedicated effort to bring him back into fitness?"

The wise part pointed out that maybe the horse's owner was a good rider and had been keeping him fit and working him properly.  Maybe the horse is also a naturally gifted mover.  Not everyone tries to do dressage with Friesians, you know.

The petty part of me responded with thoughts about how it isn't fair that someone with no dressage experience should get to just hop on a made horse and go win a show.

This kind of internal debate kept going on in my head, and I couldn't get rid it.  After a couple of weeks of it, the part of me that isn't wise and that makes questionable decisions even if I'm well-rested decided that the solution to this madness was for me to enter a show.

"That is stupid," Wise Me said.  "You HATE showing!  Remember last time?  And the time before that?  It was so HOT!  And remember that time that Nimo wouldn't use one quarter of the arena because he was scared of the judge's stand?  Or that time he was worried about the reflective pumpkins on straw bales around the perimeter of the arena, so you had to ride the whole test on the second track?  Or how about the incident at the arena with the mirrors that appeared to be suspended in mid-air that freaked out Nimo and most of the other horses and resulted in only half of your test being worth anything?"

Not Wise Me, "But I'm so MAD about how that lady did!  It's not right that someone puts in so little work and wins!"

Wise Me, "Who told you life was supposed to be fair?  And maybe this lady is a really good rider who deserves her success.  You don't know."

And perhaps the most important question would have been, "How would you going to a show fix being mad about someone else's performance?"  But no one asked me that question.

It was so easy to enter the show.  Gone are the days of hunting for an entry form and filling it out by hand, writing a check, and having to go to the post office to mail the entry.  Now, you can sign up through Facebook and use PayPal.  And within minutes, Not Wise Me had signed us up for a show.

Thankfully, Not Wise Me had the sense to sign up for only one test and to choose Intro Level, but guess when the show was?  AUGUST...I pretended that because we'd already been having a miserably hot summer that August would somehow be cooler to balance that out...

After I signed up, I was determined to make sure I had all my equipment in order and learn the test well in advance of the show date.  I was going to turn over a new leaf.  No more procrastinating and waiting until the last minute for me.  Nope, I was going to be ready.

I really waffled on whether I would do a conventional dressage test or western dressage test, because I no longer identify with any discipline.  I've spent more time than I can remember switching saddles and bits and headstalls and attire between and among disciplines.  I currently ride in an English-style endurance saddle with a western style bridle.  Although it is often a double bridle and when I ride with a single bit, it is a Baucher snaffle, which isn't a legal bit for either type of dressage show.

But when I really thought about it, I simply identify with western riding more than English riding.  Western riding was the way I learned to ride, and quite honestly, the attire feels more comfortable to me (for the most part) and I can't bring myself to ride in a dressage bridle or white breeches.  So I choose the Intro Level, test 4 for our show.  It would have been nice to be able to do Basic Level (similar to Training Level), but Nimo's canter is not balanced enough yet to support an entire 20 meter circle consistently (I know, I know, that is a whole other blog post...or maybe a book).  And one thing that Not Wise Me got right was to focus on a level where there should be nothing that would give us any problems.  If we haven't gotten to the point where we can do a walk/trot pattern, then maybe I need to give up riding altogether...

And that was really the whole issue, although I didn't know it at the time.

So I diligently began my preparations.  Because I had committed to a western dressage test, my first goal was to learn the test.  Which I did.  It was pretty straightforward and not difficult to learn.  The only remotely exciting thing about it was a shallow loop on the long side of the arena.

Then I thought about what bit I should use.  As I mentioned, I typically ride in a Baucher snaffle or a double bridle.  I occasionally use a hackamore too.  As luck would have it, NONE of these three things are allowable in western dressage.  Baucher snaffles are not allowed, although you can basically use any other kind of bit, including Tom Thumb snaffles (which many regard as one of the most severe bits you can use), cathedral bits, and spade bits with ports up to 3 INCHES.  Double bridles are also not allowed.  And while bosal and side-pull type hackamores are allowed, the kind I use (which is one of the wheel hackamores) is not.  Apparently there is some concern that it might have a small amount of leverage.  Because God forbid that a hackamore use leverage when you allow curb bits with 7" shanks and 3" ports.  Not Wise Me was starting to remember why I didn't like to show.

My first thought was to kick myself for having sold every extra bit I had on eBay, including a perfectly good Myler snaffle that would have been legal for the show.  It wasn't Nimo's favorite bit (he seems to like bits that have more stability, like the Baucher or the Mylers that have the slots for headstalls and reins), but I am sure I could have ridden a single dressage test in it.

My next idea was to buy an inexpensive low port curb bit similar to what I was using in the double bridle and use that by itself.  I mean, how hard could it be?  Nimo is literally ridden in everything else, so surely a curb bit would be fine.  Yeah, to start with, finding a western curb bit that is 5 1/2 inches wide is an exercise in futility.  Apparently western bit makers cannot comprehend that a horse would have any size mouth other than 5".  The one I ordered for the show back in early July is still on backorder.  So my new plan was to use one of the two English-style curb bits I had for my double bridle.  One was a bit too big and I hadn't sold it because it was such an inexpensive bit that it didn't seem worth my time to sell it.  But I figured it would work fine for the show and I had seen that some Western riders were using them for western dressage.  Apparently, the moving rings to which the reins attach provide "pre-signaling" to the horse when the rider picks up the reins.  Whatever.  I would have preferred a bit without them, but that wasn't going to work.

So I rode Nimo in a curb bit.  And he hated it.  He would warm up fine, but if we got into any serious work, he would be overbent and I spent the entire rest of the ride battling it.  We were both miserable.  I even tried switching to a mullen mouth curb, and while that helped a little, it was still no good.  It took me awhile to figure out what the problem was.  It turns out that Nimo still seems to want or need light contact.  With the snaffle, double bridle, and hackamore, I can provide that contact without a problem.  But when the only source of the contact comes from a curb, it is too much.  The port, chin strap and poll pressure add to the tongue and bar pressure, and Nimo is getting overwhelmed by signals which makes him want to suck back and drop his head to evade all the pressure.  I don't blame him for that, and I feel kind of dumb that I didn't think of that much earlier.

So that left me with going back to the Baucher or the hackamore.  I finally decided that because both would not be legal, I would go with the one that would allow us to give our best performance.  Nimo does work in the hackamore fairly well, but he tends to pull down a bit, particularly as the ride goes on, which I don't like.  It results in me spending more time than I like dealing with that instead of focusing on other things.  Whereas with the Baucher, I don't typically have to spend much time on dealing with bit-related issues and we can focus on movement and my position.

I would be competing at a schooling show, and typically schooling shows are not as rigid about requirements as long as there doesn't appear to be harm to the horse.  And I would rather have gotten disqualified than try to torture my horse with a bit that wasn't working.

Next I had to figure out what to wear.  I actually own a couple of western shirts that I use for riding because I like them.  And I recently bought a new helmet and converted it into a HellHat (another subject for another blog post).  So the top half of me was feeling western.  But the bottom half liked English breeches and tall boots.  Who wants to ride in jeans in August?  When I checked the dress code, though, it said the requirement for my bottom half was pants.  Not light or white colored full-seat breeches.  Just pants.  (Or a riding skirt or one-piece equitation suit.  Please no one tell me what that equitation suit is.  I have this vision in my head of one of those jumpsuits that Elvis wore for some of his performances, and it gives me great pleasure to imagine someone doing a western dressage test looking like Elvis.)  I can do pants.  So I decided that I would just wear my dark blue breeches, which sort of look like they could be jeans from a distance.  And I've seen pictures of competitors with their jeans tucked into their boots, so I reasoned that wearing tall boots is simply a form of tucking my pants into my boots.  I did decide to add a lightweight vest to my ensemble because I wanted to make it clear that I was definitely western, and I felt like the vest added a finishing touch without adding much in the way of weight or expense.

Now on to the big ticket item.  The saddle.  I'm currently riding in an English style endurance saddle that looks like a hybrid between an all-purpose saddle, a dressage saddle, and an Australian saddle.  I briefly contemplated sticking western fenders on it and calling it good.  But I do still have my Specialized Eurolight (which is a western-style endurance saddle) and a Barefoot Madrid (which is a treeless baroque style saddle).  According to the rules, if I put western fenders on either of them, it should be legal.

I opted to go with the Eurolight.  I have been planning to sell it, but wanted to have a goodbye ride, so to speak, because it reminds me so much of our endurance journey.  I figured the show would be a great way for me to remember that I didn't like it anymore and I could sell it with a clean conscience.
As I am prone to doing, I forgot my vow not to procrastinate, and waited just a bit too long to deal with it.  I had pulled off all the shims and panels long ago and I knew Nimo's shape had changed since the last time I'd used it (which was probably at least 3 years ago).  I wasn't looking forward to refitting it.  Which is why it was about 4 days before the show before I lugged it out to the barn.

I sweated my way through fitting it because of course it was about 100 degrees out with the humidity lingering in the barn.  I had apparently defiled one set of panels and lost another set, so I was left with the 3/4" panels, which were probably a bit too thick.  I also had a massive bridging problem.  When I first got the saddle, I think I found minor bridging on one side, but now it was crazy.  I just started sticking shims on left and right and trying to make sure I didn't have any harsh edges.  Eventually, I got it to a point where it was close.  Not close enough for endurance work, but close enough for us to do 3 or 4 half hour arena rides.

The next hassle was getting a girth to fit.  I pulled out everything I had (which is substantial - I may need to sell more things on eBay!).  My long girths were too long.  And my dressage girths were too short, even the 34" one.  I even tried the trick of using baling twine looped through the billet strap and the girth buckle to give me leverage and I could not get the girth to the first hole.  I've been putting a concerted effort into putting weight on Nimo and it was clear I had been successful.  I finally managed to get my mohair back-up girth to the first hole, but Nimo was pissed off at me for the effort.  I made a mental note to go to the tack store and get a long girth in a size like 40" because there was no way I was going to deal with the girthing issue even 3 or 4 more times.

When I got into the saddle, I expected that the wide twist would irritate me and that I would long for my current endurance saddle that has a narrower twist.  As it turned out, I felt like the saddle put me in a better position and the wide twist didn't really bother me...Interesting...

I had also stumbled on another bit when I was looking for a hole punch and extra girths.  I think it was probably the very first bit I got for Nimo - a simple eggbutt Myler snaffle - that was shoved in a random drawer.  It was totally legal for the show.  Eureka!  I swapped the bits on the headstall and Nimo and I headed out for a trial schooling session.

Nimo did pretty good.  He fussed a little with the new bit, but I hoped that if we rode in it a few more times, Nimo would settle and it would be OK for the show.  The saddle worked well and Nimo gave no sign that it was uncomfortable, so I figured my shim job was adequate.

And so three days before the show, everything was in good shape.  My outfit was clean and ready.  My tack was amazingly enough all legal, with the exception that I decided not to put the western fenders on the saddle.  When I dug them out of storage, I remembered that I had to drill copper rivets out and replace the biothane leathers that had broken a few years ago and then reassemble.  I just didn't feel up to it.  And to be honest, I don't know why western fenders are required.  The saddle was clearly built on a western tree with western leather and conchos.  The use of western fenders seemed more of a preference than a necessity.  Whether I had them or not, my ride would be virtually the same, except I wouldn't have an extra piece of leather between my calf and the horse.  Even a conventional western saddle can easily have the fenders swapped out for regular stirrup leathers because the fenders aren't integral to the saddle.

Plus I was tired of dealing with "legal" issues, to be honest.  Legality is one of the main reasons I don't like showing and why I was initially attracted to endurance riding.  Good riding is good riding, regardless of tack.  The single most important thing is that the horse is comfortable, so using a saddle, pad, bit/hackamore, headstall, or whatever that fits the horse and allows good communication with the rider needs to be the overarching principle.  Not whether something is tradition or matches a discipline or "looks" right.

But now that I had finished all that I needed to do to prep for the show, I didn't have anything to distract me from the voice in my head.  That voice that we probably all have that acts as an Inner Critic.  The voice that tells us we aren't good enough or didn't do something as well as we should have or could have.  I've been struggling with that voice my whole life, and mostly can recognize when it's getting too loud.

But lately, that voice has been taking over.  And after I got that saddle fitted, it became relentless.  Why are you still showing at Intro Level?  You've been riding this horse for 13 years.  Why are you having so much trouble cantering?  Maybe you just are not a good rider.  Maybe you shouldn't be doing Science of Motion anymore.  Nimo's topline still hasn't filled in all the way.  Maybe you aren't feeding him the right things.  Or if you hadn't been procrastinating about building your horse barn, you could have him at your own place and feed him better.  You aren't riding enough.  You aren't disciplined enough.  All your friends are able to canter their horses.  They go on conditioning rides every weekend.  But you don't.  Nimo isn't even fit enough to do an Intro ride.  He's spooky on the trail again because you aren't working with him enough.  You aren't being a good owner.  You've wasted all the work you did with him before.  You don't fit in anywhere.

"Maybe I shouldn't be riding anymore."

I was horrified to discover I had said the words out loud.  To Nimo.  While I was riding.  The silence hung in the air as if I'd been having a terrible argument with a significant other or close family member and had said something that I wished I could take back immediately, but couldn't.  The thing that both people in the argument knew was somehow true but was too honest and should never have been spoken.  The thing that creates this terrible silence because there are no words that can be worth anything after having said the thing.

I don't know if Nimo understood what I'd said, but I suspect he knew that I was upset and something was wrong.  I felt a shift in his energy.  I'd felt like this once before.  That I simply wasn't able to ride well enough to keep trying.  That I was so defective that even basic skills were beyond me.  It was stunning that I would think that after I'd been pursuing Science of Motion work and taking regular lessons and in fact, been making improvements.  But they weren't the kind of improvements that anyone else (except for a few people in a closed Facebook group that I don't know and that often live in other countries) would recognize or even value as worthwhile.  And the idea that I no longer have a single person, other than my riding instructor, to talk to about how I was riding, was overwhelming.

I had just spent several weeks trying to get ready for that show, and at every step I was reminded about how I didn't fit into the horse world.  My bit wasn't legal.  My clothes don't match a single discipline.  My saddle and bridle aren't the same discipline.  I don't use western fenders.  I want to do endurance using what I've learned from Science of Motion, but haven't figured out how to do it yet, and there is literally not one person on this earth who can really help me or who even thinks that is a worthwhile pursuit.  (This is how I was feeling, not necessarily reality.)  Even when I was practicing the test pattern, which wasn't difficult, I realized that I spend almost zero time doing any patterns at all when I ride.  Everything is based on whether the horse is ready to perform the movement or the figure, rather than riding a specific pattern for accuracy.  While that sounds all noble and great, the reality is that I often can't get a whole circle from Nimo if he gets out of balance and sometimes I just want to ride a circle or do a figure-8 or a serpentine or something to get a mental break from the focus required for Science of Motion work.

And I got kind of pissed off and depressed and then mad again and then despondent.  And I was stuck in this roller coaster of feeling isolated and still wanting to try and then remembering that I was alone.  And it just sucked.

And then I was mad at myself for having all these emotions RIGHT BEFORE THE SHOW.  I mean, I couldn't have waited to have some kind of a life crisis until AFTER the show?

I kept watching the weather hopefully as the predicted temperature climbed from 93 degrees to 97 degrees for the day of the show.  The July show had been cancelled because the "Feels Like" temperature hit 110 degrees and while that day and the two following it were really awful, I found myself hoping it would happen again to the August show.

Then I hoped the extreme heat and humidity would cause a severe storm that would cause the show to be cancelled.

Finally, I realized I could just scratch our entry from the show.  It was going to be hot.  No one would blame me.  I'd only told 3 people I was going to the show - my husband, daughter, and best friend.  None of them would judge me negatively if I scratched, and no one else would know.  (Except for the new boarder at our barn who had the misfortune of being there the night I was fitting the saddle to Nimo.  She watched in amazement as I did the shimming and struggled with the girth.  At one point she said, "Did you not realize you were signing up for a western test?"  Because of course, no rational human being would sign up for a show in a certain discipline unless that was the discipline they rode.)

But I didn't scratch.  And the morning of the show, I cleaned the bit and reins and polished my boots.  I'd cleaned the headstall and saddle at the barn the night before.  I wasn't showing until 3:49, so I had plenty of time.  Lots of time.  I ran errands in the morning.  I did some watercolor painting.  I checked Facebook and email.  I kept asking myself why I was doing this show.  The more I thought about it, the more inadequate I felt.

Finally, it was 1:30 and time for me to head out to the barn.  (The show was hosted by my barn, so at least I didn't have to haul.)  I had given Nimo a bath the day before and we've had such dry weather that he was unable to find any mud to roll in, so he was still clean.  I braided his mane.  Again, this is something that was probably wrong for the discipline.  Western horses with long manes are shown with their manes unbraided.  But because of the heat, I felt like braiding was the most common sense thing to do for Nimo's comfort.  After all, he wasn't the idiot who signed up for a show on a 90+ degree day.

I checked in with the show organizer and found out a couple of riders with ride times before mine had scratched so I could ride early if I wanted.  I suspected that would happen, and that would have been a great opportunity for me to scratch too.  But I didn't.  I got my number and said I would be ready to ride a little early and I would just check in with the scribe to see about a specific time.

I saddled Nimo and we headed out to the arena to warm up.  He was immediately suspicious about all the unexpected activity.  Horse trailers, cars, other horses, and random people were all around in his space.  One thing that Nimo often does when he worries about something is he slows down or even stops moving.  That is probably better than the alternative of spooking and bolting or behaving like an idiot, but it can still be frustrating.

I let him walk slowly to the arena and stop and look as many times as he wanted.  Then I got on and we started walking around.  I saw that a man was videoing a rider from the bleachers and realized if I rode in the whole warm-up area, I would be crossing in front of him.  So I stayed in one section until the rider was done.  That worked OK, because Nimo was focused on identifying all the different things and stressing internally about them.

And that was when I realized how hot the sun was.   And how tired of dealing with Nimo's issues I was.  How I very much wished he was different.  And how I didn't want to be there.

So I did what I often do when I get stressed or am miserable.  I made a sarcastic comment.  I didn't direct it at anyone because I didn't know anyone there.  (A friend was supposed to come and video my ride, but her AC unit broke down and she had to wait for the repair company.  In that heat, it was a true emergency.  And my husband had taken my daughter outdoor rock climbing that morning.  He had offered to come in my friend's place, but I could see how tired he was, so I told him to stay home.)  I think I said something along the lines of, "OMG, it's like being in a windy oven."  Because of the hot breeze that started blowing.  For some reason, everybody around me laughed.  It wasn't funny, but maybe they were stressed too.  I don't know.  In any case, the laughter really helped.  All of a sudden, life didn't seem so bad anymore.  It was like some of the stress had dissolved.

I realized how lucky I was that no one was there watching me.  It didn't matter if I made a mistake.  No one would be disappointed or have preconceived notions of how well we would do.  I felt a little bit more of the pressure lift.  And then we were able to walk to the other side of the warm up area.  Nimo was a bit "looky" at first because of some equipment in the distance.  But he started to settle, and we just walked.  I didn't worry too much about how correct his walk was.  I focused on breathing and steering.  Eventually we did a little trotting.  The good news was that Nimo was really responsive.  The bad news was that the trot was not anything too exciting in terms of movement.  But as soon as I asked for more bend to increase the quality of the trot, Nimo would stop moving.  I concluded that even though he wasn't really showing it, he was still nervous.

So we walked some more.  I had plenty of time before our ride time, and there was no requirement for me to go early.  As we were walking, another western rider came into the ring to warm up.  I smiled at her and said something about how nice it was to see another western rider at the show.  (There usually aren't too many western riders; it's still mostly conventional dressage or eventing tests.)  I think her first words to me were, "You know, that saddle you're riding in isn't legal."  (Thank you, Hermione Granger.)

I knew it wasn't legal because I hadn't put the fenders on, but I was curious about why it was so urgent that she share this information with me, a person she has never met and has no knowledge of.  For all she knew, maybe my fenders broke or I was borrowing a saddle.  She proceeded to tell me that it wasn't legal because it didn't have the fenders.  I told her I knew that and that I did have fenders for it, but hadn't wanted to go through the trouble of using them just for the show.  Having been thwarted in some way, I guess, she then felt compelled to inform me that my saddle probably still wouldn't be legal even if it had fenders.  Huh.  I asked her why she thought that.  It turns out she didn't have a specific reason.  She told me that "They [whoever they are] are getting pickier about saddles.  There have even been some people who tried to put thigh blocks on their western saddles.  And those are definitely illegal now."

Now, if you have ever seen the Eurolight, you know there is nothing remotely resembling a thigh block, so I'm not sure why she connected that to my saddle, but considering that conventional dressage saddles often have huge thigh blocks, I wondered why it was such a big deal if western saddles had them too.  Shouldn't it be the rider's preference?  I know some might argue that thigh blocks might make it easier to sit bad movement and disguise it, but as far as I can tell, even international level judges can't tell the difference between leg movers and back movers, so we might as well let riders be comfortable.  She went on to explain that she also competed in conventional dressage shows and she had to fight to get her Freeform saddle declared legal.  Of course, I wasn't competing in conventional dressage, so I'm not sure what that had to do with my saddle.  But maybe it was her mission to make sure everyone understood about saddle issues.

Anyway, I said something along the lines of, "Wouldn't it be nice if we didn't worry so much about what kind of saddle people rode in and focused more on dressage regardless of tack?"  Her response, "Oh no! They wouldn't like that at all.  There's tradition, you know."

And something happened to me then.  I realized that I don't want any part of that attitude.  I don't care if something is "tradition."  In my mind, things are only valuable if they serve a true purpose in aiding communication between horse and rider.  That is what our goal is supposed to be.  Whether my stirrup leathers are Biothane strips, baling twine, or thick slabs of leather shouldn't matter.  Whether my bit has slots in it for reins or not shouldn't matter.  Whether I'm wearing blue breeches or jeans or a skirt or shorts or leggings shouldn't matter.

I was also witnessing a young lady (probably mid- to late-teens) who was apparently at her first show.  The contingent of spectators that had laughed at my awful joke earlier were all there to watch her.  She looked scared and worried and tense.  After her first test, her coach barely waited for her to exit the arena before laying into her about all the problems with her first test and how she needed to do better for her next test.

Between watching that and listening to the "legal" expert, I was shaking my head internally.  What an awful place to be.  And that was the place I used to be when I showed.  I was worried about all my deficiencies and my horse's problems and what was legal and whether I looked OK.  It was miserable.  And it had been making me miserable that day.

I didn't know it at the time, but I was finally internalizing something that I have been saying for a long time.  The reason I've been so stressed about showing is because I really haven't believed myself when I said things like, "Tack shouldn't matter."  I thought I meant it, but deep down inside, a part of me still believed that I needed to "look the part."  If I didn't have the right tack and outfit, I wasn't representing myself and my horse properly.  I wasn't showing respect to the judge.  But in preparation for this show, I managed to relax a little and wear clothes that I was not only comfortable riding in, but in fact, were clothes I actually wore to ride (except the vest, but I really liked it).  The old me would have put the western fenders on.  But I was evolving and getting to a point where I really was starting to think more in terms of what was best instead of what was tradition.

The thing is, horse shows don't have to be like that.  They could be like endurance rides, where people are friendly to each other and chat even if they don't know you.  They could be places where experts and newcomers mingle and learn from each other instead of compete.

I decided to take my thoughts with me and leave the warm up part of the arena.  There is a field next to the arena that can also be ridden in, and it's where Nimo and I ride a lot.  He likes the footing better there.  So I thought we'd go to the field while I let my brain wander a bit.  We did a few canter transitions, and I could tell by the way Nimo did them that he was still really tense.  I happened to remember Mark Rashid telling a couple of stories in one of his books about horses that needed to blow off some steam in response to a stressful situation.  In his stories, he put the horses in an arena and let them run around.  I couldn't do that, but what I could do was let Nimo trot.  Instead of focusing on correct movement, though, I let him choose his pace, which was quite quick.  We did several large figure-8s while I let him blow off some mental stress.  After I felt him settle, we headed back to the arena.

Photo by E. Berkery Photography.  Used with purchase.  I didn't know the photographer was taking our picture as we walked back to the arena or I might have tried to smile.
I wasn't sure where we were at in the ride order at that point, so I approached the other western rider (the one with the saddle advice), and asked her what her ride time was.  She said it was after mine, but she was kind of upset because the ride organizer had put her tests back-to-back, and she would have preferred some time between them.  So I asked her if she wanted to go before me.  It didn't matter to me.  Another five minutes would not make any difference in our ride, and it occurred to me that I am perfectly capable of acting like a pleasant person even if the people around me are lacking in that area.  The other rider decided to go first, and she went off to check in with the scribe.

I watched her test for a minute and then walked and trotted Nimo for a bit more.  And it was then that I made a deal with him.  He could move however he was most comfortable for the test.  I wouldn't ask him to do any more than he felt like he could do.  After all, he's been to more shows than I can remember.  He knows how it works.  He still gets nervous, though, and it occurred to me that by forcing him to give more than he is comfortable with, I'm a little like the parents I've seen at competitions with my daughter.  Some of them push their kids way outside their comfort zones.  I remember distinctly seeing one young girl shaking with fear as she climbed a rock wall that her mother insisted she do.  It was disgusting and saddening to watch.  And I've vowed I will not do that to my child.  And I shouldn't do it to my horse either.  Overcoming fear needs to be an internal process, not an external one.  So this show was simply a way to remind him what showing was.  Nothing more.  My job would be to remember the test and guide him in the right direction.

And then it was our turn.  I checked in with the scribe.  In what turned out to be a stroke of luck, the judge's blue Easy-Up had been replaced with an SUV.  I'm not sure if that was the judge's request or the Easy-Up was broken, but Nimo was significantly less worried about a vehicle then he would have been an Easy-Up.  (At endurance rides, he doesn't give them a second glance, but at dressage shows, he is terrified of them.)  We walked around the outside of the ring while waiting for the judge to ring the bell to let us know we could start.  When I heard the familiar tinkling, I asked Nimo to trot and we headed for the entrance at A.

Nimo powered through his trot and then we halted at X for the salute.  And the rest of the test went like clockwork.  I didn't worry that I would forget any parts because it flows really well.  And Nimo did everything I asked.  He walked, trotted, circled, changed direction, and did the shallow loops without any hiccups.  He was consistent and solid.  He wasn't perfect in the sense that one of our downward transitions was a little abrupt and he took a bit longer to halt for the last time then he should have.  But our circles were circles.  We stayed on the track when we were supposed to be on the track.  He wasn't distracted or spooky.

Photo by E. Berkery Photography.  Used with purchase.  Nimo and I are circling to the left during the second half of the test.
Photo by E. Berkery Photography.  Used with purchase.  Our final halt, and one of my favorite pictures of us.
For the first time ever, I wasn't nervous about a test.  I didn't fight with Nimo during any section of it.  When it was over, I didn't want to die from embarrassment.  It wasn't a brilliant test, but it was a good test.  It was a test that could form a good foundation and be improved upon.  I was sort of in shock.

We headed back to the barn so Nimo could get his dinner and a cold shower.  And the day was over.  I didn't yet know our score or placing, and because of the way the show works, the results would not be posted until a day or two later.  (Instead of running the show in division order, starting from lowest level to highest, the show is set up to accommodate people who are trailering together or need certain ride times.  That results in different levels mixed together all day, so the results can't be calculated until the end of the show, which is usually close to 10 pm.)

I also had a lot to think about.  One thing that had been bugging me was finally resolved, though.  I figured out why I was so mad about the lady my friend knew who had done well at the show in June.  I thought I was being petty by being mad about the situation (and my Inner Critic had added that to the list of Things I Should Feel Bad About).  In reality, I was mad at myself.  I felt guilty for doing things other than riding.  I felt guilty for not progressing the way I thought I should.  I felt incompetent because I was having a hard time doing more advanced work with Nimo.  I felt like I was disappointing my endurance friends because I'm not conditioning or riding with them.  I felt alone and isolated because of my riding goals.  I felt out of place because I don't ride in a specific discipline.  And I didn't know how to deal with all of that.  And maybe even more importantly, I didn't know if I wanted to deal with all of it anymore.

"Spiritual growth doesn't happen when you're meditating or on the yoga mat.  It happens in the midst of conflict - when you're frustrated, angry, or scared, and you're doing the same old thing, and then you suddenly realize that you have a choice to do it differently."
                                                    - Andrea Mills of Mills Horsemanship & Hoofcare 

Riding in the show was pretty cathartic, even though the time leading up to it was painful.  I think I needed to go through that emotion and feel my feelings.  I needed to say what I said and think what I thought to work through to a better place.

I think I have come to terms with the idea that what I do with Nimo is different than most other horse people I know.  And as far as I can tell, the only one judging me for those differences was me.

Western dressage is not a perfect fit for us, but it's close enough for now.  I've signed up for the next show in September.  I'm hoping we can have another good, consistent test, and work on making that consistency a habit.  I feel like the most important thing is not that Nimo moves as well as he can, but that mentally he is calm and feels comfortable with the situation.  Only then can we really work on improving our movement.  I'm continuing to take Science of Motion lessons and I'm not planning on changing anything about the way we ride.  I'm also going to stop feeling guilty if I only ride three times a week instead of the five times that I know is optimal.  While Nimo is a huge priority, so am I.  I need time to myself to decompress from raising a young and energetic child.  Sometimes that means cutting barn time short.  That might mean that we never become as great as we could be.  And I'm working on making my peace with that.

If you are wondering how we did at the show, we scored a 69.523%, which is very respectable, and we got 2nd place.  I hope we can improve on that over time, and even graduate to the next level.  I'm also reminding myself that my objective is not to be competitive, but to improve our communication and ability to work together.  I hope someday we can take that communication to an endurance ride, but for the near future, our rides will focus on something else.  I expect that the trails will still be there when we are ready.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Fear and Riding

It was just a blue bag, thin and plastic, like the kind you get from a grocery store.  It was half-buried in the field and basically not doing anything except laying there.  But the second Nimo saw it, he stepped about 6 feet sideways and had to slow down to a walk to recover from the shock of seeing it where it clearly should not be.  In fact, Nimo's opinion of plastic bags is that they should never be seen nor heard.  They belong in another world, far, far away from him.

I counted my blessings that Nimo's reaction had been so understated.  About five or six years ago, the sight of that blue bag would have resulted in a terrible spin and bolt, likely accompanied by bucking.  And that's what I spent the next few minutes dwelling on.  How bad the spook could have been instead of what it actually was, which was completely rideable and not that big of a deal.  I even imagined in my head what could have happened, and I remembered all the times that Nimo had bolted and how terrifying it was.

The incident reminded me of something that has been on my mind a lot lately - fear and riding.  I have a close friend who, until recently when the horse passed away, had what I consider to be one of the safest horses to ever be saddled.  I have ridden this horse many, many times over the years, and I even trusted her with my daughter.  She was remarkably easy to ride and tolerant of a whole host of rider errors.  The worst that she might have done was to slowly wander around a field eating grass if you weren't paying attention.  Yet, my friend is one of the most timid riders I know.  She constantly worries and was so plagued by anxiety that she hardly rode this horse for many years (even though a lot of other people rode her).

She recently called me to tell me about a trail ride she went on.  She rode a horse she'd never ridden before, and I know she was quite anxious about even going on the ride in the first place.  But after the ride was over, she couldn't stop gushing with excitement about what a wonderful time she had.  The horse was very steady and even when a squirrel fell off of a tree right in front of them, he remained unphased.  I was so happy for her, and I hope it means that she will keep riding and maybe even get another horse someday.  But I worry that her fear will keep her from doing what she so clearly loves.

Another friend recently got in touch about some issues that she had with her horse that really shook her confidence.  They would have shaken me too, and I think her reaction was completely normal and rational.  Riding horses that are reactive is a very tough thing to do.  I'm not sure I was particularly helpful when I responded to this friend, because I have to admit that comforting people and helping them feel better about a bad situation is not a skill I have, despite many years to trying to improve in that area.  But it did make me think a lot about me and Nimo and about all the horses I used to ride before him.

It most reminded me of the little grey Arab mare I had for about 15 years.  I got her when I was 13, and I rode her everywhere.  I competed in pretty much every 4-H event possible, from halter classes to western pleasure to trail to reining to barrel racing to jumping.  We even did a couple of multi-day trail rides in remote parts of North Dakota.  I hauled her with me when I went to college and when I moved from Iowa to Virginia.  She was athletic and motivated and wanted to do everything, mostly at a canter or a gallop.  I think her walk was about 5 or 6 miles an hour and she hated being behind anyone.  We often rode 10-12 miles at a time several days a week when I was younger.  And the more rugged the terrain, the happier I was.  I used to gallop her over ditches and my favorite thing was to go as fast as possible over people's driveway entrances.  The ditch was often much lower than the driveway, so there would be a sudden, steep climb up to the driveway and then a drop-off on the other side.  I think we both loved it.  Even the thought of doing that now almost makes my heart stop.

As much as I can remember she never balked at going over any terrain.  Although she did have a bad habit of jumping two-foot jumps as if they were four feet, which often resulted in me falling off (there were no helmets in those days, but I was young and invincible).  And sometimes, if I didn't prepare her properly for a jump (which was common because I had zero instruction in jumping and had no idea what I was doing), she would run out.  But I'm sure that was a rider error and not anything to do with her ability.

I tell you this because it was a time when I rode without fear.  Part of the reason was that I simply did not understand mortality to the degree that I do now that I am older.  Part of it was because I had such a willing partner.  She didn't spook or bolt or buck or behave unpredictably.  In the show ring, she knew her job and did it, and on the trail, we just went as fast as possible, so she was happy.

While I still had this lovely mare, I procured a young horse who had been abused.  And it was the first time that worry started to creep into my head.  He was a pretty solid character, and I adored him more than life itself, but he did buck sometimes and he wasn't quite as fearless as my Arab mare.  In hindsight, I know why he was bucking and if I owned him now, I don't think it would be an issue, but he had to be put down after a terrible pasture accident left one of his hocks shattered and irreparable.

I bought Nimo a couple of months later, and I started taking dressage lessons pretty regularly on a friend's horse (the same one I mentioned above) while Nimo was too young to ride.  I also rode another friend's small, grey Arab mare while she was pregnant.  So I got lots of good saddle time and supposedly good instruction on how to ride.

Looking back, I can see that those dressage lessons were probably about the worst thing to ever happen to me.  You see, I already knew how to ride.  (I remember my parents asking me why I was taking riding lessons when I already knew how to ride, and I remember telling them it was because I was learning to ride better.  It is laughable to think back on what I used to be able to do compared to my limitations now.)  What happened is that all of my confidence in my abilities was eroded by an instructor who forced me to ride in a way that wasn't comfortable for me or the horse.

No one can sit an unbalanced, quick trot on any horse, I don't care how good you are.  Yet, this is common for dressage instruction as are many other harmful practices.  And I think it ruins more riders and horses than can be counted.  Because it makes us afraid.  We are afraid that we will ruin our horses if we don't use our aids properly.  We are afraid we will look stupid in front of our instructor and our friends or maybe a judge.  We are told 100 times during every lesson about all the things we are doing wrong, and if we are lucky, we will hear 1 or 2 times about something we did right.

And so when we ride by ourselves, all we hear is this voice in our heads telling us that our hands aren't still enough, our legs aren't strong enough, our seat isn't stable enough.  We become convinced that we don't have any skills because our horse doesn't move correctly and we get calf cramps from trying so hard.  We start to black out from lack of oxygen from the exertion of trying to force our body into contortions.

And then if we happen to be starting a young horse under saddle who is flighty or spooky or just inexperienced, it all multiplies.  Because now we start falling off when said horse bucks or spooks.  And every time we fall off, it confirms what we know in our hearts.  We are bad riders.  We need more instruction because we can't be trusted to ride by ourselves.  Maybe we need a different horse.  Or a different saddle.  Or a different bit.  Or sharper spurs.  The list goes on and on as we troubleshoot our problems and lament about our issues to other like-minded riders.  If only full-seat breeches came with actual glue on them or we could seat belt ourselves in the saddle, maybe then we could actually sit that trot.

Maybe we even figure out that we need a new trainer because we aren't getting better with the current one.  But the new trainer still uses the same basic premise to instruct us.  Horses must be obedient to our aids, which are prescribed to us by The Masters.  If we only learn to apply the aids properly and beat our horses into submission, then we will be good riders.

In the meantime, we are too afraid to even take our horses out of the arena, because we know the horses will spook and bolt and misbehave and even unseat us.  We will get hurt because we aren't as young as we used to be.  And what if our loose horses run into the road and get hit by a car?  So we stay safe, and our comfort zone becomes smaller and smaller.  Until soon, all we feel comfortable doing is walking around an arena if someone else is with us.

That was about the point I was at many years ago.  I was absolutely terrified to ride Nimo.  Any time I took him out of the arena, it ended badly.  Most of the time I managed to stay on, but the few times I didn't convinced me that I didn't have too many more falls left in me.  I reached a point where I had two choices:  sell Nimo and stop riding forever or get help.

I finally managed to be brave enough to get help.  I got it from Jane Savoie's Happy Horse DVD set.  While I don't agree with much of her philosophy anymore (simply because it is still based on obedience to a certain set of aids, not because I find her personally objectionable), it was enough of a difference to motivate me to seek a new path.  It took a while and that path led me down the road of endurance and finally to Science of Motion.

I wish I could tell you that I resolved my fear, but as you know from the opening of this post, I haven't.  I'm still in some stage of anxiety most of the time when I ride.  I don't know if there really is a way out of it once you have experienced it.  At best, I hope to learn skills that help me minimize my fear.  For example, when I was having my ride out lesson with my instructor a couple of weeks ago, both horses spooked when we flushed a deer in the woods.  The spooks weren't bad, just a few feet sideways.  My balance was really good even at that unexpected moment, because what I'm learning with SOM is that I need to keep my body engaged 100% of the time.  That constant engagement offers a lot of protection against an unpredictable spook or buck or misstep by the horse. And every time I survive a spook or something else that might normally have given me trouble, it builds my confidence.  Maybe I'm not such a terrible rider.  Maybe Nimo isn't such a bad horse.

But there are enough moments like the incident with the blue bag to remind me that Nimo is probably never going to be 100% spook free.  I will need to always work on it with him and with myself.  I will need to make a conscious effort to overcome my worry every time I ride.

And so that is what I've been doing.  When I rode yesterday, Nimo was a piece of work.  He and his herd had been moved to a new paddock for the first time in probably 2 or 3 years.  I wasn't there, but several people told me that Nimo was a complete nutter.  Apparently, he ran around the new paddock until he completely lathered himself up and finally settled.  Unfortunately for me, all that running around didn't tire him out a bit (I guess he is fitter than I thought!).  So when I got on, there was still quite a bit of adrenaline in his system, and I immediately felt his back bunch up and he started crow-hopping every few strides.  It wasn't difficult to sit, but I knew from past experience that if I didn't manage his energy, I could have a major blow up on my hands.

The old me would have done one of two things.  I either would have gotten off and lunged him to see if that would help or I would have stayed in the arena and wrestled with him to make him walk because I wouldn't have felt comfortable dealing with anything more powerful.  The new me opted for a third choice.  We were going to do a regular conditioning ride out around the farm.  I've written before about how Nimo can act when I ride him around the farm, which is difficult and frustrating and terrifying.  But I resolved to do it anyway.

I double-checked my helmet strap and rode him down the driveway. He settled a bit because he always walks pretty slowly on that section.  That gave me a chance to firmly get my brain under control and plan my ride.  When we got to the end of the half-mile driveway, I turned him so we could ride around the perimeter of one of the hay fields.  I've ridden him around that field a couple of times, but not for weeks, and I knew he would be energetic.  I asked for Pignot jog and Nimo barely consented.  He wanted to really move out, but I was trying to convey that he had to trot properly.  And I'll give him credit.  He trotted the length of the field without breaking and without exploding.  We continued around the field, crossed the driveway, and started trotting the perimeter of the next field.  He kept trotting.  We swung around the edge of a paddock and kept going, finally slowing as we approached the barn.

I could tell that little jaunt had made zero impact on his energy level (it was probably about a mile and a half), so we circled around to do it again.  Nimo was really fussing at me about heading away from the barn, so I just asked him to walk very slowly and worked on my position.  Then I turned him into the field to ask him to Pignot jog the opposite direction around it.  We'd be trotting away from the barn instead of toward it.  I could tell he was feeling irritated about that, and as we turned the corner to head down the long side of the field, I asked him to really bend, thinking that it would help him focus on his balance instead of how much he wanted to trot.  That provoked a canter and then almost a buck, followed by an unnecessary spook.  I just kept asking for trot and we went down the long side of the field.  Then I asked him to keep trotting as we connected with the driveway and headed back toward the barn.  But I also insisted on correct movement.

Unfortunately, it became clear that Nimo was getting more worked up and not less and as he got lathered up (the day was warm and the humidity was about 207%), my reins got so slick, I was having trouble holding on to them.  (Note to self: start riding with gloves again now that it's so warm.)  But we kept trotting until Nimo spotted the blue bag.  Then I could tell my efforts to get his brain out in the field were done.  So we walked back to the arena, and went in for more work.

I'll be the first to admit that our arena work was not a thing of beauty.  It was purely utilitarian as I worked to engage Nimo's body and get him paying attention to his balance and coordination.  After about 15 minutes of mostly walk with a lot of small circles and changes of direction, he finally decided that he could collect himself.  And I called it a day.

I tell this story of our ride not to show you how successful it was in dealing with Nimo's nutcase self; in fact, I'm pretty sure it wasn't.  Instead, I shared it to show how I'm dealing with my fear.  It is true that sometimes fear is a healthy reaction to a bad situation, and it should be paid attention to.  But with Nimo, fear has become such a habit that I must constantly work to address it.  If I'm scared and then don't ride or play it safe every time, I will just get more scared and soon I will be back to riding in the arena only with supervision.  I don't ever want to go back to that place again, so I actively work on dealing with it.

And tonight when I go out to ride, I'm going to ride the same fields and do the same thing I did last night.  And I will keep doing it until both Nimo and I are comfortable with it.  And then we might try that jumping thing again...:)

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Riding with My Heart

The obscenely wet weather that northern Virginia has been experiencing for the last year finally started to normalize at the beginning of May.  We were still getting rain frequently, but the amounts seemed more like usual (keeping in mind that May is often the wettest month of the year), and the ever-present mud started to dry up.

I was excited because that meant that the footing out on trails was likely to be improving as well, and we could finally have a lesson outside of the arena.  You may remember that we started doing ride out lessons last year, but had to discontinue them for several months because everything was a muddy mess.  I hadn't really been out on the trails much so far this year, and I was hoping that riding on the trail would help get me out of the funk I'd been in for awhile.

The day of my lesson was supposed to be hot and humid (I seem to forget every year that May is the start of summer in this area and temperatures in the 90s are not uncommon).  We would be riding out from the barn where my instructor keeps her horse, and she told me we would be trying out some different trails than what we'd ridden before.

So at about 9:30 am, I hopped on Nimo without a whole lot of thought.  And suddenly everything felt right again.  His back was already engaged.  My legs felt like they were in a good place and my seat felt secure.  All of the feelings that something wasn't right were gone, and I felt like I was at home in the saddle.

We started our ride with a short walk down a gravel road and then headed out onto maintained trails  that were part of equestrian easements in the area.  Apparently some landowners had fought against allowing the easements to be used, but a friend of my instructor's (who is a lawyer), basically forced the issue when necessary so that a network of miles of trails is now available.  I wish the idea of easements was incorporated into more areas.  It doesn't take much space to create an easement on the edge of a property and it is such a benefit!

We ended up riding for over two an a half hours over rolling hills and fields, across creeks, and through woods.  At one point, we came across an old 3/4 mile training track that used to be used for conditioning polo ponies.  It wasn't well-maintained, but the footing was good enough on most of it that it could be used for some canter work.  Nimo and I still struggle quite a bit with canter and one of my goals this year has been to deal with it and figure out how to canter for a mile.  I haven't made much progress on that goal, and I asked my instructor if we could work on it.

Luckily, my instructor's horse is happy to canter, or even gallop, so she led the way and started cantering.  Nimo was really resistant to cantering at first, but we just stayed on the track and I kept asking.  Finally, he decided he could do a little canter, so we followed behind my instructor as she cantered her horse around the track.  We probably went about halfway around and then changed direction.  Nimo did better this time - I think because he figured out what I was asking and knew the footing was OK.  So we cantered a bit more than halfway around, even through some mud!

It was all very exhilarating and so much fun!  It was wonderful to be able to ride with someone who would let us work on it and who could adjust the pace to match Nimo's fairly good-sized canter strides.

We continued riding and did some practice on obstacle work when we passed a farm that had a variety of livestock and stuff.  Nimo is not fond of domestic fowl, but we had a chance for him to learn that geese are OK and not actually horse killers:)

We also continued to work on canter intermittently when the trail was wide and grassy and reasonably flat.  I suspect that we probably put in close to a mile and a half of cantering during the ride - much more than we've ever done.  I could tell how much it helped Nimo to have another horse lead.  He worries so much about footing when he canters, so having a horse in front seemed to give him quite a bit of reassurance.

Nimo is sweaty because of all that cantering!
(photo by Cherie Turner)
Then we came to another 3/4 mile track that was maintained.  By that point, the day was pretty warm and humid, so I didn't want to do much more canter.  Instead, we worked on two other things.  I haven't been using Pignot jog as much as I used to, so I wanted to practice that.  And I also wanted to work on having Nimo trot next to another horse.  I can't remember when I first realized it, but Nimo has a hard time being next to another horse on a trail.  He seems to think he either needs to be in front or behind.  Convincing him that he can be next to another horse is definitely on my list of things to accomplish.

The track was a great place to work on those things because it was wide enough for two horses to be next to each other and it was flat with good footing.  My instructor set the pace, and Nimo and I worked hard to match it while staying even with her horse.  It didn't go perfectly, but I was pleased that we had the chance to try and Nimo did manage to keep the pace much of the time.  I could tell he was confused about staying next to another horse, but he did it, so I feel like we made some progress.

After working on Pignot jog, we headed back.  We mostly walked the horses because of the heat, and I could tell Nimo was definitely a bit tired (all that cantering!).  But I had so much fun.  I wasn't exhausted or miserable.  I wasn't bored or feeling overwhelmed.  I wasn't frustrated or angry.

And that was when I realized that in my zeal to pursue Science of Motion methodology, I had forgotten the reason I ride.  I ride to be out on the trails with my horse.  I ride because I love cantering through fields.  I ride because I love crossing creeks and winding through trees.  I ride so that I can see new places that can only be seen on horseback.

I have always considered arena work to be a means to an end.  I school in the arena so we can work on balance issues and practice different maneuvers.  But my heart is on the trail.  When I gave up conditioning for endurance rides, I also gave up being out on the trail.  It was sort of a gradual thing, and it was in part because of the weather we've been having.  But without the constant need to train for an endurance ride, I got lazy about taking Nimo out on the trails.  And I think it really affected me.  Maybe Nimo too.  He definitely works better out on the trails than in the arena for most things.

When Jean Luc Cornille told me that I needed to ride with my heart at the clinic in April, I don't think he meant that we should go out on the trails.  I think he was talking more about feel in the saddle.  But it turns out that I feel best in the saddle when I'm out on the trails.  It's something I've always known about myself, but I guess I temporarily forgot about it, and it was good to get a much-needed reminder.  From now on, my lessons will be out on the trails (weather and footing permitting), and the arena will be a back-up or used only if there is something specific that we need to work on.  And I'm going to make an effort to ride outside the arena at the farm where I keep Nimo as well as get us out on the trails in between lessons.  I don't know yet if or when another endurance ride is going to be our goal, but I am convinced that we need to be out on the trails doing conditioning work regardless.

And so our journey continues...

Monday, May 20, 2019

Science of Motion Clinic April 2019

I signed up for two sessions at this spring's Science of Motion clinic with Jean Luc Cornille instead of my usual one session partly because I wasn't planning on going to any endurance rides (so I could justify the extra expense to myself) and partly because I wanted to see if having two sessions improved the experience.  I have enjoyed my sessions with Jean Luc in the past, but it's hard to recalibrate to a new instructor in 45 minutes, and I thought having a second session would give me more time to get used to his teaching style.

I had also originally been hoping that we would be able to do impressive things like piaffe and passage, but our struggle with Nimo's left hind leg meant that we weren't as prepared to engage in that level of collection.  And I was kind of bummed about that.  In fact, I was kind of bummed about my riding in general.  Something didn't feel right and I couldn't put my finger on it.

But, I'd signed up for the clinic, and I'd told my instructor I would be happy to take the first session of the day on both days of the clinic.  Apparently, it is hard to find people willing to ride in that spot, probably because it means they have to get up early in the morning.  But I decided that the sacrifice of sleep was worth the ability to warm up without another rider in the ring (I always worry that I will get in the way of the lesson).  And I would have most of the day left after my ride, so I could audit the remaining clinic or get other stuff done.  (As it turned out, I would need to get other stuff done, but more about that later.)

I hadn't really thought through exactly how early I would need to get up, though, until the day before the clinic, when I realized I would need to be up at 4:15 am.  I mentally kicked myself a few times and then resigned myself to my fate.

I don't really have a clear memories of that morning because I was in a bit of a fog, but apparently I managed to get up on time, get out to the barn on time, and even get Nimo properly groomed and braided.  I had spent the better part of the previous week body clipping him, because the amount of filth in his remaining winter coat was becoming too much for me to bear.  He was shedding out, but it wasn't fast enough, and extremely warm evenings were predicted for the foreseeable future, so I decided to shave off all his hair except on his lower legs.  I even gave him a full bath and detangled his mane and tail, which had begun to resemble rats' nests.  Filthy, uninhabitable rats' nests...

I made it to the clinic location with plenty of time to spare.  That meant I could take my time getting Nimo saddled and hopefully reduce the nervousness that I always seem to develop before clinics.  I'm not sure why I get nervous.  I've ridden with Jean Luc before and he is a very easy man to work with.  The venue is easy to get around and very quiet.  But I guess I worry that I won't represent myself or my horse or my instructor very well.

Anyway, I headed over to the arena to warm up for a few minutes before my ride time and I realized that the extreme wind that we were experiencing that morning was making enough noise that Nimo was pretty distracted and even worse, tense.  I tried to keep him as calm as I could, but there was no doubt that we would have to spend a significant time working with him just on focusing on the ride instead of the wind.

Jean Luc watched us walk around for a few minutes and I also asked Nimo to trot a little.  (I didn't even try for canter because I'm not suicidal...)  Then he came over and talked to me for a bit.  I don't remember everything he said, but one of the things he did was raise his index finger and ask me to place one of my fingers against it, applying just enough pressure to keep the fingers connected.  Then he proceeded to increase and decrease the tone in various parts of his body, and he asked me what I felt.

It was kind of an amazing little exercise.  I could absolutely tell just with my finger when his body was toned and balanced versus when it wasn't, even though someone just watching us would not have seen any obvious changes in his body.  The point of the exercise was to illustrate just how nuanced the connection between a horse and rider can be.  If I could feel Jean Luc's body changing through a single finger, then imagine what my horse was feeling through my hands, seat, and legs!  It was a pretty meaningful exercise for me, and it reminded me a bit of some of the work that Mark Rashid does with his clinics.  Horses are incredibly sensitive and have the ability to perceive far more than we give them credit for.

Nimo was having a tough time bending through his thoracic area (not uncommon for Nimo or most horses, really), so Jean Luc asked me to start by putting Nimo on a small circle (probably a 10 m diameter or even a bit smaller) and asking for counter bend.  I'm really not sure why it is referred to as counter bend, because the focus is really on the flexing the horse's poll slightly to the outside of the circle rather than trying to create a bend through the body, but it has always been an effective tool for Nimo, even before I started working on Science of Motion techniques.

Essentially, the counter bend creates a problem (i.e., the horse is not bending on the circle) that needs a solution (i.e. the horse needs to bend on the circle).  It's kind of a circular logic (pun intended! ha,ha!), but it definitely seems to help Nimo.  We worked on the counter bend for a while, maybe 10 minutes, and once I had gained more influence over Nimo's body and he was really tuned in to me, Jean Luc asked me to switch to the correct bend on the circle.  Once we had correct bend on the circle, Jean Luc asked me to use a large pirouette (basically a half-pass on this small circle that we were working on).  The pirouette was intended to give Nimo the opportunity to really bend through his thoracic area, which would allow him to create the correct coordination and balance for his body.

When Jean Luc thought we'd achieved good results, he asked me to trot Nimo.  We struggled with that part a bit because Nimo kept wanting to canter.  He would trot a few strides then canter a couple of strides, then trot, then canter, etc.  I knew exactly why we were having that issue, though.  I have been trying to retrain Nimo that his cue for canter is my inside leg instead of my outside leg going back because moving my outside leg affects my balance in the saddle.  But for this exercise, I was using my inside leg a lot as a point of reference for Nimo to use for where he needed to bend.  He was probably a bit confused.

We did get some nice trot work, though, and then switched to going in the other direction.  I was kind of worried about that, because we'd started going to the right, which is definitely an easier direction for Nimo.  And while I thought I'd resolved the issue Nimo had been having with his left hind, I kind of wondered if it might manifest itself again.  But Nimo actually picked up the exercises to the left much more quickly to the left than he had the right.  Our 45 minute session ended too soon, though, and I was glad I had signed up for a second session.

I ended up only staying for a few minutes after our ride.  Late one night about 3 weeks before the clinic, I got the brilliant idea that planting an Osage orange tree hedge out at our acreage would be a great idea, and I was enabled by the ease of ordering 300 bare root trees online at about 11 pm.  I hadn't been sure when the trees would arrive from the nursery, but it turned out that they came the day before the clinic and both the box and the instructions proclaimed in bold letters that the trees "must be planted IMMEDIATELY!!!"  So, I had my work cut out for me to try to get to the clinic and figure out how to get 300 trees planted quickly.  (I'll probably write another post about how that worked out, because it isn't as easy as it sounds...)

The next day, I slept in until 4:30 am (oh, the luxury!) and still managed to get Nimo groomed and braided and tacked up well before our ride time of 8:30.

I still identify as an endurance rider and I love that we can use an English-style saddle with a western bridle:)
Everything, including the wind, was quiet that morning, and I kind of wondered if I might be the only one attending the clinic.  In fact, Jean Luc got there before my instructor, who had organized the clinic.  I was warming up before he arrived, and he gave me a few more minutes before he started our lesson.  He watched me as I tried to recreate the walking pirouette from the day before, along with a trot transition.  I could tell it wasn't quite right yet, and Jean Luc agreed with my assessment, so we went back to work.

We went straight to working on the pirouette without first going through the counter bend and circle exercises.  I spent my time trying to make subtle adjustments in my body based on the feedback Jean Luc was giving me.  Which was mostly letting me know when each leg was connecting with the ground and when I lost the bend.

After a few minutes of working, Jean Luc had me take a break.   (That is kind of normal for him, I think.  He likes to observe and provide some feedback and then he gives what I think of as a mini-lecture related to what he sees.)   I can't remember exactly what he said, because he said one thing that sort of took my breath away, like he could see into my head.  It was something along the lines of, "You have to ride with your heart."

You may remember that I have been struggling a bit with a feeling of "something just isn't right."  well, when I heard the word "heart," I realized the thing that wasn't right was that my heart wasn't in my riding.  I was trying to address problems.  I was analyzing my position and Nimo's movement.  But I wasn't feeling anything except negative feelings like frustration and irritation and aggravation and sadness and regret and even anger.  I wasn't enjoying my rides.  I was just going through the motions.

Jean Luc followed up his little bombshell with a pretty technical discussion of how the pirouette works as a tool to help horses with their balance and coordination.  I really don't remember the specifics because he was throwing a lot of numbers and theory at me, but what I understood is that the pirouette is an incredibly complex exercise.  It requires a whole bunch of body parts to basically work together perfectly, both for the horse and the rider.  And the horse and the rider have to match each other's movement too.  By the time he was done explaining how everything could go wrong, I was feeling ready to throw myself and Nimo a party for still being upright, much less accomplishing a few steps of correct pirouette.

And then he pointed out how it can take a really long time to achieve consistently correct balance and coordination.  It isn't something that can be accomplished in days or weeks or months.  It takes years and years.  In our culture in the U.S., I think immediate gratification has become so common in the horse world.  I mean, if you have enough money, you can buy a "made" horse.  Or you can pay a trainer to make the horse for you, and all you have to do is get on and ride and show and collect your ribbons.  Very few people really put in the sweat and blood and tears to go from a beginner horse to a finished one (assuming a horse is ever really finished).  And we expect horses to just know things.  We expect even beginner level horses to be able to change leads over fences.  We expect 3-year-old horses to go to horse shows with lots of noise and distractions and perform at their best.  We expect young horses to go out on rugged trails and trot and canter over hills and rocks and streams.

I know very few riders who really put in the effort to educate themselves or their horses.  In fact, just a few days ago, I was just talking to a rider whose horse is jumping 3-foot fences.  She was wondering if maybe she should try to do some flat work with him instead of jumping all the time, but she found the flatwork unpleasant because the horse is "lazy" and she doesn't enjoy constantly kicking him around the arena.  I tried to gently point out that doing the flatwork on a regular basis with a good instructor might actually help the horse to not feel lazy and help the work feel more pleasant, but I suspect the rider will continue to simply jump her horse.  After all, why would she do the flat work when her horse is athletic enough on his own to jump 3-foot fences and win blue ribbons for her?

I'm not sure if Jean Luc knew how much his talk with me had affected me, but hearing the idea about riding with my heart as well as the much-needed reminder that I am not in this for immediate gratification took up a huge part of my brain not just for the remainder of our lesson, but for weeks afterward.

We went back to working on the pirouette and Jean Luc said he would tell me when he thought I was "in the zone."  That meant that Nimo was moving really well and it would be appropriate for me to ask for trot.  However, the decision to ask for trot would be mine.  He explained that I could feel far better than he could see if Nimo was ready for trot.  So he would let me know when the conditions looked right, but I needed to use my own feelings (my heart, if you will) to decide if we should keep walking or move into trot.

Nimo and I are working on bend


So we practiced it over and over.  Nimo was still having trouble maintaining trot on the circle, though.  He continued to substitute canter strides.  Jean Luc then reminded me that if we try something and it isn't working after a concerted effort, that the best thing to do is to try something else.  The point of riding that day wasn't do get Nimo to trot on a circle.  The point of riding was to get Nimo to trot with correct movement.  Whether we did it on a circle or a straight line or in some other way didn't matter.  He asked me to trot Nimo in shoulder-in using a sort of hexagon shape.  Basically, when the walk was correct, I would ask for trot straight ahead instead of on the circle but simultaneously ask for shoulder-in to help Nimo keep his balance.  Then after a short time going straight, I would ask for a quick, short turn and then go straight in shoulder-in again.

We worked on that exercise for awhile, and Nimo's trot really improved and we both started working well together.  Jean Luc then told me to just keep trotting straight (in shoulder-in) until I felt the movement start to deteriorate.  At that point, I should do a quick turn to rebalance and then continue in shoulder-in straight until Nimo needed rebalancing.

The more we did the exercise, the better we got.  We were able to trot for longer stretches without needing a turn for rebalancing and our hexagon turned into a square and then a triangle and then mostly straight lines.  We changed directions and got similar results.

I was putting in a pretty good effort at that point and was getting out-of-breath, so I was kind of thankful when our time was up.  But it was a good stopping point, too.  Nimo and I were working well together and the quality of his trot was really nice.  Jean Luc complimented me at the end of my lesson and said I was doing really well.  I don't think he would have said that if he didn't think it was true, and it was nice to hear.  It's also a credit to my instructor, who has been working with me and guiding me.  And it is especially a credit to Nimo, who is the poor soul who is having to work so hard to figure out how to change his movement and listen to me, even when I'm probably less than clear and he has no idea what the objective is.

So my lesson ended on a really great note.  I took Nimo back to the trailer and got him untacked and set up with a snack, while I headed back to the arena to watch the next rider.  I had to work on planting those dratted Osage orange trees later in the day, but I at least wanted to watch one other rider before I left.

The rider after me was a fellow In-Hand Therapy Course student, but newer to the program.  She was riding my instructor's horse, who is quite lovely and very experienced with SOM.  What was interesting to me was watching this rider's position.  She was still holding herself quite stiff and lacking in confidence, and the horse's movement reflected that.  I very much remember being in that phase myself, and it was a reminder about how far we've come in the past couple of years.  I also caught a glimpse of the rider after her (not an IHTC student), who was still following the methodology of using your body and hands to "follow the horse's movement."  I used to do that too.  I was struck by how obscene it looks to me know.  There is absolutely no reason to engage in that much movement on the back of your horse.  Good riders should look still and in harmony with their horses, not like they are taking an aerobics class.  But having been there myself, I understand that once you get used to riding like that, you don't even notice what you are doing and you may even think that you are being still.  Another reminder of how far we've come.

When I reflect on the clinic, I'm so glad that I rode in two sessions.  It was wonderful to have the time to work through the exercises at a pace that was right for us.  We never felt rushed, and I had enough time to repeat the process of getting it wrong and then getting it right over and over, which helped to develop muscle memory for both Nimo and me.  It was well worth my early mornings.

But I was still struggling with something.  After the clinic, I hardly rode, even though I couldn't stop thinking about the concept of "riding with my heart."  When I rode, nothing felt right to me.  The saddle felt wrong, my stirrups felt wrong, Nimo felt wrong.  There was no connection and I felt constantly out of balance.  I couldn't understand why I felt like that.  After all, I was riding in the same saddle and stirrup length as in the clinic.  Nimo was the same horse.  Why the disconnect?  I tried changing the saddle from the old Wintec endurance saddle back to my old dressage saddle, but it didn't help.  And I was faced with this overriding feeling that I didn't even want to ride.

Apparently one more thing needed to happen before I could figure out what was going on.  Stay tuned for what I eventually discovered...

Monday, May 13, 2019

Blue Ridge Hunt Club Bluebell Ride

The morning of Sunday, April 14 dawned with the cloudiness and grayness that typically precedes rain.  I was on the fence about how I felt about the rain.  I'd previously agreed to join a ride put on by the Blue Ridge Hunt Club.  My instructor rides with them on trail rides sometimes and she had tempted me into going on this ride with the promise of seeing a multitude of bluebells.  Early to mid-April is bluebell season in northern Virginia and many groups offer rides during that time through bluebell territory.  I've gone on a few over the years and they are beautiful.  But I don't enjoy group rides as much as I used to.  Much like with Judged Pleasure Rides, I have found that they aren't Nimo's strong suit.  He gets a bit to wound up and riding him is less of a pleasure and more of a brute force and battle of wits to keep him together mentally.

One could argue that if I simply did more group rides, he would likely learn how to behave and then I could enjoy them like everyone else does.  I have no doubt that is true, but I just don't find the effort worth the reward.  I'm not a huge fan of rides that are 4-5 miles anymore, unless it is part of a particular conditioning or training strategy.  If I have to spend hours driving my truck and trailer to get to a site, I kind of want to get in at least 8 miles and 10 would be better.  Nimo typically takes 2-3 miles to really get into his groove, and if we're only going 4-5 miles, it isn't really enough to make the time invested worth it.

But I thought that if my instructor was also riding, maybe Nimo would remember our trail lessons from last fall and sort of fall into correct behavior and movement out of habit.  So I agreed to go on the ride against my better judgment, but I wouldn't have been too disappointed if the event was called off for rain.

I spent much of Sunday morning obsessively checking the weather radar for the movement of the incoming storm that was predicted for Sunday late afternoon/evening.  As of the time I needed to leave to go to the barn, it looked like the rain would hold off.  So with a bit of dread, I headed out to the barn.

Despite the moody skies, the temperature was in the low 70s.  Nimo still had much of his winter coat, and I'd decided to do a trace clip to help keep him cooler.  I planned to get out to the barn early enough that I could do at least most of the clip before we left for the ride.  What I didn't plan on was Nimo being covered in mud about an inch thick.  It took me 45 minutes of dedicated scrubbing and scraping to get it off.  Which left me about 10 minutes to clip.  I trimmed a bit on his hind legs and the jugular area on his neck and called it good.  But I figured we would just be walking the whole ride anyway, so he probably wouldn't work up much of a sweat...

We would be riding out from private land with a distant view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Here is a picture of the view from the parking area:


I arrived with enough time to play around with Nimo's tack, which was a good thing.  I planned to ride in my "new" old Wintec endurance saddle for the second time, and I hadn't had a chance to figure out if the breast collar would work and I was also playing around with saddle pads.  I had only ridden in the saddle once during the previous week, so even the girth adjustment was still a bit unknown because I hadn't tested it on the trail.  (I am going to make a note here in case anyone reading this post is new to trail or endurance riding and has stumbled across my blog.  ALWAYS test your tack BEFORE you go out on group rides.  NEVER test new ideas at group rides or worse, at competitions.  That said, once you get some experience, you might be able to play fast and loose with these rules, but you do so at some risk.  It's important to remember that as you'll see later in my post, which like many could probably be called Yet Another Way in Which I Serve As an Example of What Not to Do.)

I already wrote in my last post that my current favorite set-up for saddle pads wasn't going to work with the Wintec.  I have been using a thin cotton pad topped with a Thinline half pad, which I really liked.  I liked being able to throw the cotton pads in the wash easily and the Thinline pad provided some extra cushion without affecting saddle fit too much.  But the panels of the Wintec were a bit too long for the Thinline.  I hadn't been riding in the saddle long enough to really know what I wanted to commit to in the long run, so I had grabbed a good-sized dressage pad that had been made for me years ago by Seams Right.  It was a double layer of thick cotton flannel, so thicker than a regular cotton pad, but thinner than my Thinline/cotton pad set-up.  With the saddle being quite old, I wasn't sure about the panels.  They felt OK to me, but I figured having a little extra padding couldn't hurt.

As it turned out, I discovered that the girth straps on the pad did not even remotely line up with the girth when I put the saddle on.  I had to play around with the position of the pad quite a bit to make sure it stayed under the saddle, had appropriate wither clearance, and still worked with the girth.  Thankfully, my girth has long elastic straps, so I was able to just squeeze the second elastic strap through the front of the girth strap on the pad, so everything would hopefully remain stable during the ride.

I had thought to take the snaps off of the all-purpose saddle I'd been using and clip them to a set of d-rings on the Wintec saddle.  That extra length was much-needed to get my breast collar to fit right.  Nimo's shoulders have gained muscle and even on the last hole, the breast collar is too tight without adding extra clips to get more length.  The breast collar seemed to fit reasonably well with the clips, so that part of my tack worked well.

Finally, I used our regular halter/bridle with a hackamore.  I had thought about using a snaffle bit, but Nimo tends to pull a lot on group rides because of his excitement and the thought of pulling on his mouth was too much for me.  I don't like pulling on his nose either, but I feel like the potential for damage is less.  (Not everyone would agree with me on that point, but I don't know that there are conclusive tests that show either a bit or hackamore is "better" from the standpoint of force.  Some horses seem to be able to handle more pressure on their noses while others handle it better on their mouths.  I would prefer not to use any kind of force on either area, but the practicality of it is that if you are going to ride with something on your horse's head, there are going to be times when you may need to use a lot of pressure to avoid a bad situation.)

I was ready a few minutes before the ride started, so I took the opportunity to walk Nimo around and hopefully gauge his mental state.  He was alert and ready to move out, but easily managed, so I crossed my fingers mentally that he would remain that way for the ride.  And then I saw how many people were going to be on the ride.  A lot.  Like probably more than 30.  When I've ridden with hunts before, the groups are typically split by how fast they want to go, so there aren't any more than 7-10 riders in a group.  But this group would not be split.  So much like the last group ride I went on, this would be a very large group.  Nimo really doesn't do well in very large groups.  It's too much like an endurance ride start, but without the option to move out and trot for a bit for him to burn off the extra energy and settle.  I resigned myself to an unpleasant ride.

We started off in hilly territory, and quickly got to a location with lots of bluebells.  I did manage to snag a picture while gritting my teeth and struggling with Nimo:


The terrain was beautiful, even in the gray weather.  Spring was definitely arriving, but I have to admit that I didn't get much of a chance to enjoy it.

Because we were riding through private land, we had to stop a lot to open and close gaits.  Please try to imagine 30 plus horses having to come to a halt every few minutes.  If your horse wants to stand still, that is probably not a big deal, but if your horse is mentally expecting to be moving out, it's tough.  Nimo did do a good job of staying put for the stops, though.  He at least remembered that he needs to eat when we stop, so the grass kept him entertained and gave both of us a break.

But while we were moving at a slow walk, life was difficult.  I had to use my whole body to keep him contained.  It was much like the first endurance ride I did at Fort Valley where he was so excited and desperate to keep up with all the other horses.  In this case, I think he probably just wanted to be closer to the front - we were riding near the back.  It wasn't until after the ride was over that it occurred to me that maybe if we'd been near the front, he would have been less anxious (note to self...).

So we struggled on as best as we could, and I tried to think of it as an opportunity to work on my balance and communication.  Unfortunately, at one point we all stopped and waited in a sort of enclosed area.  I never did figure out why, but our next step was to cross a stream.  The crossing involved a fairly steep and muddy bank and then a rocky, fast moving stream.  Coming out of the stream also involved a steep hop up a bank and then going through some pretty choppy mud before heading up a steep and muddy hill.  (Virginia has lots of mud in the spring and riding 30 horses through it does not improve the situation.)

Nimo was ramped up from waiting for several minutes and he was very frustrated by how long it took to get to the stream crossing.  Then I had to slow him down to give room to the horse in front of us.  By the time we got to the stream, he was ready to blow up.  And blow up is just what he did the second his feet were out of the water.  Using the momentum from the small jump up the bank of the stream, he started to canter.  But it was so muddy, and I was still holding him back, that his canter wasn't getting him very far, so he started bucking.  The bucking was not a surprise to me - I could feel it building - but I just didn't have a way to avoid it.  So I rode him through it.

One great way to test your tack set up is to ride a bucking horse while cantering through deep mud up a steep hill.  If you and the tack stay where they are supposed to, I think you can give yourself a huge congratulatory pat.  And when we got to the top of the hill, I mentally did just that.  All the tack was still on my horse and in order.  I was still on my horse with both stirrups.  I considered the saddle to be my favorite purchase ever at that point for being stable and helping me keep my balance.  (I suspect all the Science of Motion work may have contributed to my balance as well but a stable saddle and good breast collar go a long way toward keeping a person in the saddle!)

We proceeded on the trail with Nimo still feeling pretty fresh and shortly thereafter came to another stop.


My instructor snapped this photo.  The grin on my face is because I'm still alive.  But my face is all red from the exertion of holding Nimo together.  And you can see the lather building up on his shoulder by the breast collar.

We rode on for a bit more.  And it turned out that Nimo was not the worst behaved horse at the ride.  (In fact, I don't know that too many people knew we were having trouble.  I was able to keep Nimo fairly contained and we worked as much as possible on using a collected trot to help him release energy while still maintaining a slow pace.)  Another horse side-swiped Nimo from behind because he was really upset and spinning.  The group stopped again to allow the rider to get off and switch horses.

After we got going again, we stopped a couple of minutes later, and all I could think was, "What fresh hell is this?"  And that is when I saw what looked like a 2-foot coop jump at the front of a line of horses.  "Well, that's OK," I told myself.  "We'll just go around it."  Yeah, so after watching for a couple of minutes, I realized THIS WAS A JUMP WITH NO GO-AROUND.  I've never been on a ride, even a hunter pace or a hunt club trail ride, that forced riders to go over a jump with no option to go around.  It was not a big jump for most people, but it was set on a hill, so you jumped from up the hill down the hill over the jump.  Normally, Nimo wouldn't have even attempted it, but with so many horses in front of us and being excited, Nimo was desperate to get over it.  So, remember my goal to jump a two-foot jump with Nimo this year?  Well, this was the perfect opportunity to cross it off the list...assuming I didn't die in the attempt.

And believe me, I had a lot of time to look at the jump and develop about 71 different ideas about how this was all going to go wrong.  Nimo was too wound up to jump safely.  We've never jumped anything going downhill.  Also, Nimo does not jump two foot obstacles.

Here is the likely scenario that I imagined in my head.  Nimo would jump over the coop and then as he was landing, take advantage of the additional length in the reins and downhill slope to get in a really good buck and launch me to the next county.  Upon landing, about six of my bones would break, and I would have to be airlifted to the nearest hospital.

Here is what actually happened.  I made sure that I kept only the bare minimum of space between Nimo and the horse in front of us (having made sure that the horse in front of us was not bothered by horses behind her).  That strategy was intended to help him feel like he was keeping up with the group and not getting left behind.  As he went over the jump, I did not lean forward as much as I normally would have, and made sure that I maintained a good contact over the jump.  The second his front feet touched the ground, I sat up, engaged every muscle in my core, and dragged his head up so he couldn't buck.  I'm sure it did not look pretty, but we made it with no bucking or loss of balance, and I breathed in a sigh of relief.

From there we continued on, eventually getting to what looked like another stream crossing.  For whatever reason, everyone ahead of us was rushing down the hill, and keeping Nimo balanced and walking took every bit of strength I had.  And as we got to the bottom of the hill, I realized that the horses weren't crossing the stream, but trotting on what looked like 4 inches of ground between brush and the stream.  So basically, there was no margin of error.  If your horse slipped, you would fall over the stream bank into a rocky creek or if you tried to move inward, you would get hung up on brush.  And did I mention we were trotting?

I think I might have held my breath and closed my eyes while Nimo negotiated the trail at a fast trot with the surefootedness of a goat.  He was finally doing what he wanted to be doing!  We came up on a gravel road and took a hard right.  At that point, the whole group was still trotting.  I heard my instructor say something about this being the most beautiful section of the ride.  I will have to take her word for it because Nimo went into his super fast trot (my GPS says it was 14 mph) and we sped down the road.  Luckily, we only had to pass a couple of other horses and I made sure that they were not spooking or nervous about our passing, but I had to give Nimo the opportunity to burn off some energy.  The front half of the group was well ahead of us, so I let Nimo move out to catch up.  He was so happy!

We didn't get to trot for more than a few minutes, but it was enough so that afterward, Nimo was happy to settle, and we had a very nice ride for the rest of the ride.  Which was about a mile.

I was floored when my GPS indicated that our ride was 4.21 miles.  It had felt like about 10 miles and I was exhausted when we got back.

Nimo is still quite fresh and ready for more at the end of our ride!
Sometimes I really wish I had the kind of horse that could do whatever job I give him, whether it is to move out at an endurance ride, gather cattle, run barrels, collect in the arena, jump 3 feet, or saunter slowly through the Virginia hills in the company of 30-40 other horses.  Maybe he will be that horse some day, but he isn't now, and I think this bluebell ride will be my last group ride for a very long time.  I don't think there was much value in me forcing him with a lot of pressure to stay slow.  It is, in fact, the opposite of what I'm trying so hard to do, which is to be light and use the weight of the reins and my body to communicate.

We survived the ride, and I guess that is something.  My tack worked, and that is something else.  Nimo did do a great job of grazing whenever we stopped.  He also was able to work with me on collected trot for short sections of trail, which is not something he could have done even a few months ago.  So I don't want to say that it was all negative, but teaching Nimo how to handle group trail rides doesn't fit within my goals or his skill set right now.

If I'm really honest about what I want to do and blend that with what he seems happiest doing, I have to realize that putting him in a situation that looks like an endurance ride but isn't, is not the best way to proceed.  Yes, endurance horses (or any horse for that matter) need to be able to be rated.  They can't just go zooming all over the countryside, but no endurance horse is forced to walk for miles in a large group of horses without any opportunity to trot or pass.  It isn't something that would be part of a ride experience.  Although I think Nimo would have been happy to do just that if he'd had an opportunity to trot earlier in the ride.  Plus Nimo has demonstrated many times his skill on being passed on the trail during hunter paces.  He can handle competitions and being passed as long as he is given the opportunity to trot at least a little to expend some energy.  He just can't handle being at the back of a large group that moves slowly and stops a lot.  So the great thing about this ride is I think I finally have that hammered into my head.  We are still going to ride with other people sometimes, but not in a large group setting.  I am going to make sure that I do a better job at matching our rides to things that make sense for us to work on and that match our skill set and goals.  Assuming we live long enough to enjoy old age, maybe that will be the time for us to wander the hills of Virginia with a large group:)