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:)

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Sometimes You Have to Move Backward to Go Forward, part 2

As you'll remember from my last post, Nimo was having trouble using his left hind leg correctly.  To solve the problem, I suppose I could have sequentially tried the suggestions my instructor gave me, but I was less interested in a scientifically rigorous experiment and more interested in quickly resolving the problem. So I basically changed everything I was doing.

The first thing I did was to dig an old saddle out of storage. It was one that I had gotten for Nimo when he was four years old. And I rode in it for many years. In fact, it was the one I started conditioning for endurance in. It is a Thornhill Germania Klasse dressage saddle. But as Nimo lost weight (and muscle tone) for endurance rides, the saddle became much too wide and I graduated to a Specialized Eurolight. I had left the Thornhill in the garage to collect dust and was planning to finally sell it, although it really isn’t worth a lot now because of its age and fairly heavy use. But I would rather someone get use out of it than leave it to rot in the garage.

Anyway, it occurred to me that the saddle might not be too wide any longer, given all the weight Nimo has put on. The saddle has an extra-wide tree (36 cm), so I figured I would give it a try. It turned out to fit very well. It does have thigh blocks, but because I’ve dropped my stirrups a couple of holes, they don’t interfere with my leg position like they used to. And the seat is slightly deep, but not extreme like many of the more modern saddles. After riding in it, I determined that it was a good intermediate solution.

The next thing I did was disassemble the double bridle and start using only the Baucher snaffle again. I have no idea if the curb bit was causing a problem, but Nimo typically goes pretty well without the double bridle and I wasn’t planning on doing a lot collected trot or piaffe/passage, so I just didn’t need it.

Then I used the bladder meridian technique from the Masterson method of equine massage to see if I could find a specific problem area.  I noticed that Nimo had some reactions along the right side of his neck, which made sense given how one of the things we'd been working on was to get him to keep his neck straight.  He has a tendency to curl slightly to the right, and I'd really been focused on straightening that curl.  As a result, the muscles on the right side of his neck were probably working harder than normal.  The other big reaction I got was in the hip area of his left hind leg.  Again, I was expecting something when I worked on that area - either in the hip or stifle, so the reaction wasn't a surprise.  In fact, I was glad to see that the massage technique resulted in a reaction (lots of licking and chewing, shifting weight, and yawning) because it meant that there was tension to be released.

I also realized that we hadn’t been out on the trails that much, and I know from past experience that Nimo does better if he gets regular rides outside of the arena. In fact, I’ve seen him get pretty jammed up from too much arena riding, so I decided that would be another change. As luck would have it, we had a bit of a dry spell, so I was able to ride around a couple of fields at the barn and down the road a bit. The arena was being resurfaced at that time too, so it forced me to work only outside the arena for almost a week.

The last thing I did was focus on Pignot jog and canter. I did a little walking with Nimo, and almost no collected trot work. I ended up not being able to do circles or much lateral work either because the places I could ride were either a road, the perimeter of a field, or the top half of a small field on the side of a hill. None of those places were great for half-pass or circles. But they were great for trotting and cantering. So that is what I did. A little walking and Pignot jogging to warm up and then canter and more canter and more canter. I cantered down the road (for the first time ever!) I cantered in the field on the hill (for the first time ever!). I cantered in the grass around the outside of the perimeter of
the arena (for the first time ever!). Nimo was never able to sustain the canter for very long (maybe a tenth of a mile at most, or halfway around the outside of the arena), but we did canter transitions on both leads over and over again. And Nimo seemed to love it. One day was very hot (over 70 degrees!) and he came in dripping with sweat (he still has his winter coat), but it was because he was the one choosing to canter.

When the arena was finished, we did a very short ride in it the first night and it was heaven. So smooth and the footing was nice and fluffy but not too deep. I was also trying a saddle owned by another boarder. She’d offered to let me ride in it months and months ago, but at the time, I had decided to go in another direction. But now, I thought it made sense to give it a try to see if I like it better than my old dressage saddle. It was an old Wintec Pro-Endurance saddle (I’m not even sure it had the adjustable gullet, although it did have CAIR panels). I had seen a Facebook post by Dom about an old Wintec she had that worked great on a lot of different horses and she mentioned how much she liked it.  I'm not sure if the Wintec she was referring to was the old endurance model or a different one, but I thought it might be worth trying regardless because I suspect the old Wintecs were probably made on similar trees.

And it was totally worth it. It fit Nimo even better than the Thornhill (even though the front of the gullet was about a quarter inch narrower), and even better for me, it was an endurance saddle!:) I didn’t ride in the saddle much more than 20 minutes because the panels felt like they could use some attention and I didn’t want Nimo’s back to get sore, but I did want to ride enough to assess the fit for him and me. The saddle isn’t perfect because the stirrup bars are a bit too far forward and the flap is a weird sort of not really all-purpose and not really dressage, so it’s a bit too long for me.  But I love the Wintec fabric. So durable and easy to clean and I don’t feel like I’m going to slide out of the saddle at the first sign of a stiff breeze.

I gave the saddle back to the boarder and checked eBay, thinking there was a chance one would be for sale. And if not, I could just set up a search to let me know if one ever did. I knew my old dressage saddle would work for awhile (and I even thought that if I removed the thigh blocks and put a sheepskin cover on it, it would work even for trail riding). But the universe decided to smile upon me and with 4 minutes left on an auction, I managed to snag the exact same model of the saddle that I had just tried! This one didn’t have the CAIR panels, though, which I figured was a good thing because it would probably make getting it reflocked easier.  The saddle would take some time coming from California (because apparently saddles coming from California have to wait for a flock of migratory birds to come get them and bring them to me), so I rode in my old dressage saddle in the meantime.

And while I had enjoyed our time riding out of the arena, I was anxious to get back into the arena so we could work on circles and half pass. But for canter, I was planning to still use whatever grassy area I could find. I had discovered that Nimo cantered so much better on grass than on any other footing, which probably explains why we had such great experiences with the canter last fall when we worked out on the fields and trail so much and why we haven’t advanced much since we started working on canter exclusively in the arena. So the second day after the arena was resurfaced, we rode in it again and had a really nice ride.  By the time we finished, Nimo’s walk was the best I’d ever felt. I was so relieved because I felt like all the canter and outside-the-arena work had really helped improve the use of his left hind leg.

But then we rode in the arena for a third time after several jumping lessons had taken place. And it went something like this…We would be happily trotting along and then it was like sinking into quicksand. Nimo’s legs would sort of grind to a halt as he sunk into footing that was churned up and at least six inches deep. It was impossible to find consistent footing that wasn’t too deep anywhere in the arena. The very edges along two sides had nice firm footing, but the "track" area in the arena was prone to fluctuating between 3 and 6 inches deep. Nimo struggled to keep his balance through the deep spots and it was just miserable.

I wish I could say that all I had to do was report this problem to the barn owner and it would have been resolved, but I knew the barn owner had deliberately added a huge amount of sand to the arena, so my complaint would not likely be taken well. And for all I knew, the hunter/jumper trainer at the barn had requested that type of footing. Hopefully anyone reading this blog already knows that inconsistent and deep footing is a soft-tissue injury waiting to happen for many horses and that trying to do collected work in footing deeper than two inches is very difficult.  Imagine trying to do ballet on the beach…So let this be a lesson to everyone, including me: Be very careful about the depth and consistency of the footing in your arena. While some cushion is good, too much is probably worse than not enough.

It was with great relief that I trailered to the covered arena where I typically have my lessons. The footing there is lovely. It is regular sand on a bluestone base, just like the arena at my barn, but the owner of the property rides high-level dressage horses in the arena and grooms it meticulously. The base is nice and solid and there is probably only an inch or so of sand on top. It was so nice to be on firm footing again!

While my instructor wasn’t crazy about my “new” saddle because of the deeper seat, she did agree that it was an improvement on my old one. I also explained I had another one coming that I thought would be even better, and we left it at that.

We focused our efforts during the lesson on walk and collected trot. Nimo was doing much better with his left hind. He did still occasionally put it down too early (short-stride), but overall, he was getting back to his old movement from about a month ago. We did just a tiny bit of canter at the end, so I could show my instructor what we’d been working on, and she thought it looked “not too bad.” (This is the equivalent of a “hallelujah” for me.)

The lighting isn't so great, but Nimo and I are back to work!:)
Finally, on Thursday my “new” saddle arrived, courtesy of an especially speedy flock of birds, and I was excited to see what I’d bought. I hadn’t had much time to make a decision when I found the listing, so there were some unknowns about the saddle. Like how wide it was and in what shape it was in. (Most people are really awful about posting saddle pictures. They use weird angles and backgrounds and bad lighting. I just want to offer a Saddle Selling 101 class to them.)

My husband looked at the giant box in dismay when it arrived. “Didn’t you just sell a saddle?” he asked. “Aren’t you supposed to be purging your tack and getting rid of saddles?” he reminded me hopefully. I did just sell a saddle, but I paid significantly less for this one than what I sold mine for, so I consider it to be the same as downsizing. Right?:)

When I opened the box, I was delighted to find a saddle that, while possibly meeting the definition of antique, was still in very serviceable condition. It was a very old Wintec Pro-Endurance. It did not have the adjustable gullet that has been standard in Wintecs for as long as I can remember, nor did it have CAIR panels. (I don’t have anything against CAIR panels – the saddle I just sold had them and they seemed to be holding up just fine, but I know reflocking is probably less expensive if I don’t have to deal with them.) I worried a bit that it would not be wide enough for Nimo, but assuming it fit the same as the similar model I had tried, it would work. The panels seemed to be in good shape and I didn’t find any loose stitching or worn billet straps. And the saddle was so light! I doubt it even weighed five pounds! Plus it had tons of little d-rings for all the stuff I like to attach to my saddle for trail and conditioning rides. I breathed a sign of relief and took the saddle out to the barn to try it out.

The interesting thing about this saddle that I referenced before is that it is a hybrid between an all-purpose saddle and a dressage saddle. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing and I’m sure it was designed that way on purpose. The saddle allows a longer leg if you want it, but a shorter leg for smaller jumps too. There is no thigh block – just what I would consider a pencil knee-roll under the flap. The seat is not very deep, which is great if you need to move or shift positions.

But the most interesting thing about it is the length of the billet straps. They are too long to be considered short billet straps like the kind found on jumping saddles. But they are too short to be considered long billet straps like the kind found on dressage saddles. An interesting conundrum unless you happen to be me. Nimo wears the largest size long girth that I can find regularly (56”), but that is really not long enough for short-billeted saddles. It only works because I spent some quality time with baling twine stretching the elastic on the buckles while tightening the girth. It was a royal pain to girth up the all-purpose saddle I had been using, and I admit that it was a relief to go back to using the short girth on long billet straps used by my old dressage saddle. But the great news is that while my short girths were much too short to work with the Wintec (Nimo is also on the upper end of length for those – using anywhere from a 30-34”, depending on the manufacturer), the long girth I had for my all-purpose saddle was perfect for the Wintec. (And this is why I hoard tack and have so much trouble getting rid of it. You never know when you need a wacky combination to make something work.) I already knew this girth would work from when I tried the Wintec owned by a fellow boarder, so I was ready to go.

There is one other interesting thing about the saddle, though, which did not work out so well. The panels extend farther back than is typical for any kind of English saddle (it may be this part of the design is borrowed from Australian saddles, I’m not sure). So that means the lovely (and expensive) Thinline half pad that I use on top of a thin cotton pad is about an inch too short. I can buy a larger size, but I kind of wish I didn’t have to. Alas, at least I don’t need to buy a new girth:)

I’ve been riding in the saddle for several weeks now, and it has been working out really well.  In fact, stay tuned for my next post when you can find out exactly how well it worked when Nimo and I headed out of the arena to a group trail ride (WHY, oh WHY do I go on group rides?!). I'll also address the saddle pad issue and how I resolved it in future posts.

But in the meantime, I wanted to wrap up this two-part series of posts by saying that what seemed like a terrible set-back had some really positive impacts. I think that had I been riding under the old idea of conventional dressage training, Nimo's left leg issue would likely have prompted a series of diagnostic tests from a vet.  I would have spent thousands of dollars on things like x-rays and ultrasounds and maybe even red light therapy and God knows what else, because that is how issues with movement are typically addressed.

Because of my experience with Science of Motion, I knew the likely outcome of the conventional way of thinking was going to be expensive and my horse would not be "fixed."  I can look to any number of recent examples among my horse friends and acquaintances for ideas of what outcomes look like when conventional thinking is used. (Please understand that I do not think vets are inherently bad or trying to rip off their customers. I also think there are good reasons to use diagnostic tests, so I'm not trying to say they should never be used. But I think they should be used with care and that owners need to prepare themselves for what can be a long and expensive road that ends with no answers or partial answers.  And had my approach to problem-solving with tack changes and movement not worked, I very likely would have engaged in diagnostic testing with a vet to see if the problem could be pinpointed to allow more precise targeting of therapeutic exercises or treatment.)

I honestly have no idea which of the changes I made contributed to helping Nimo move better.  Maybe all of them.  Maybe none of them.  Maybe the movement would have improved on its own with me simply continuing to work on correct riding.  What did happen is that I took care of a saddle fit issue that may or may not have been causing specific problems at the time, but could have down the road.  (I already knew that the saddle wasn't balanced as well as it should be, but I had been procrastinating about dealing with it.)  Now I have a saddle that is an improvement over what I was using and allows me to better communicate with Nimo.  We also worked on canter in an intense way that we would not have done if I hadn't felt like I needed to change the way we were training.  I discovered how footing really makes a difference to how well Nimo can work, and I learned that our canter work is best done outside of the arena.  And Nimo is back to using his left hind leg correctly.  We are not quite to the point we were at in collected trot before the issue happened, but that is OK, because I think we are farther ahead on several other things, and it may be that the focus on collected trot contributed to creating the problem, so I'm not in a hurry to go back to that focus.

Having to deal with a movement issue like Nimo's put me in a much different mental state, though, and it really made me think more deeply about how I was riding in terms of position, but also in terms of what I was asking for from Nimo.  That process took longer than just the time to address the movement of his left hind leg, though.  In fact, I went through a bit of a rough spot once I thought I had "fixed" the movement that didn't fully resolve until after I rode for a couple of days with Jean Luc Cornille in a clinic this past weekend (I'll write about how that went in the future as well).

One of the things that I have always loved about dressage and riding in general is that there is no point where you can say, "I have learned it all.  I am the best I can be."  There is always room for improvement.  There is always learning that can still take place (if you are open to it).  But sometimes I get frustrated with my inability to master riding.  Which is what happened during the past month or so.  I mean, I've been riding regularly since I was 11, which is over 30 years.  I've competed in a lot of different events and taken more lessons than I can remember.  That's a lot of time to be dedicated to mastering a skill and still feel nowhere close to anything resembling a high-level of skill.

Why did my horse suddenly develop a movement issue after months of really great progress?  It was a hard thing to think about.  It made me doubt myself and the path I'd chosen for us.  It made me wonder if I should keep riding.  I didn't react very well at first to those thoughts and after I had gone through the steps to solve the problem, I still found myself feeling very much adrift internally.  I hope you will bear with me for another couple of posts while I explore these thoughts.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Sometimes You Have to Go Backward to Move Forward, part 1

In my last post, I wrote about riding Nimo out on the trail and trying out collected trot. One of
the things that I mentioned in passing was that his trot didn’t feel quite as smooth as it did in the
arena. At the time, I assumed it was because he was moving over uneven ground, and I was
thinking it was probably harder to move well.

It turns out that there was a problem brewing and I didn’t realize it until the following week
when I rode in my lesson. After my trail ride with Nimo, I had continued to feel that the
movement wasn’t quite right, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what the problem was. My
instructor, however, was able to identify it right away – Nimo was putting his left hind hoof
down too early in the motion of the stride. You might have heard it referred to as short-striding
(at least that’s how I have always thought of it).

In Nimo’s case, he did not appear to be lame in the classic sense. There was no head-bobbing or
other indicators of pain. He simply didn’t move his leg far enough forward before putting it
down, which gave an asymmetric look and feel to his walk and trot. It appeared to be a range of
motion issue rather than an impact issue, if that makes sense.

I will note that Nimo’s left hind leg is his “weak link,” so to speak. He has had trouble fully
engaging it for most of his life. As far as I know, he has never had an injury to that leg nor does
he have a specific conformation flaw that would contribute to an issue. But over the years, that
particular leg has sometimes just failed to contribute to the movement as well as his right hind

In fact, one of the things that sold me on the usefulness of the Masterson Method of massage was
that the first time I used it (probably 7 or 8 years ago now), Nimo had a significant reaction when
I worked on his left hind leg. It ended with him fully stretching the leg out behind him (kind of
like how you see chickens and cats do from time to time). I’d never seen a horse stretch like that
before, but it was such an obvious release that it convinced me the bladder meridian technique
from the Masterson Method was a valid strategy for addressing tension and soreness.

Anyway, the movement of Nimo’s left hind leg intermittently shows up as something that needs
to be addressed. I’ve spent more than one lesson working on it over the years, but I really
thought we’d moved past it when it cropped up again last month. And it was not as easily
worked through as it had been in the past.

My instructor even got on during my lesson. She didn’t say anything other than that she wanted
to feel what I was feeling to help her work on coming up with a solution, but I suspect she
thought she was going to get on Nimo and identify a simple fix for the issue.  I also think she
thought she was going to be able to demonstrate how to easily canter him, because I was still
having trouble with it.

I will note that only two other instructors that I’ve had have ever ridden Nimo. In each case, it
was a brief affair. One of my instructors was almost bucked off at the walk (despite being an
international level dressage and event rider) and the other could not get him to canter to save her
life (despite working with Nimo over the course of several rides).

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Nimo is the most difficult horse I have ever ridden. This
difficulty is despite his amazing work ethic. He requires that his rider is absolutely focused on
him. Even a nano-second of wandering attention will get you a complete stop, a random darting
around the arena, a different gait, or even an attempt to unseat you. Half-assed, partial, or too-
strong aids will either get you no response or something very unexpected. If you even think you
might want to slow down or halt at some point in the indefinite future, you can expect a dead
stop that threatens to launch you out of the saddle. And cantering? You better be prepared for endless frustration. Also, the spooking. Dear God, the spooking…

Anyway, I turned Nimo over to my instructor. It was her first time riding him, so I mentioned
that it can sometimes take him awhile to get used to new riders and that I haven’t seen anyone
else have a lot of luck with him. Feeling like I did my due diligence, I stood back and watched.

My instructor rides much the same way I do, so Nimo did not try to buck her off because she
irritated the crap out of him with a strong seat or fail to respond to aids that made no sense. In
fact, he did pretty much everything for her that he does for me. He willingly moved forward and
worked very hard for her. He also wiggled and wobbled. He went sideways and backwards as
she tried to convince him to fully use his left hind leg. She did counter bending exercises and
lateral movements and even asked him to canter. Her results were almost identical to mine that
day, which is to say, not that great. She also kept saying things like, “This is a lot of horse!”
“He’s so wide!” And perhaps most importantly, “Now I understand more about what you are
going through when you ride him!”

You might think that these results were a bad thing, but I was so relieved. If my instructor had
been able to get on Nimo and ride him beautifully and canter him gracefully around the arena
with minimal effort, I would have been destroyed. I have been riding this horse for almost 14
years, and I learn something almost every time I ride. He is both sensitive and stubborn and
works hard but not any harder than he has to. He loves to do movements and gaits that he feels
comfortable with, but he gets anxious when asked to do something that he doesn’t know how to
do or doesn’t feel confident doing. He likes to learn new things but sometimes new things scare
him. He loves to go new places and explore, but sometimes feels overwhelmed if there is too
much new stuff going on. All of this can add up to what feels like inconsistency, which can lead
to frustration. I am mostly able to cope with it all now, but it has taken a long time and a lot of
reflecting to get to that point. (And as I wrote all that out, I realized just how much like me he
really is!)

Over the past couple of years, I feel like my riding and my position have improved so much. I
feel much more able to communicate with Nimo and be sensitive to his sensitivities. The vast
majority of our work is enjoyable and occurs much more easily than it used to. But we hit a little
bit of a hiccup with the function of his left hind leg. And I admit to feeling disappointed and sad
and frustrated and even a little angry at how quickly we went from making huge improvements
every week to going backwards. I had gotten so much more confident about my riding and I felt
like my confidence in myself must have been misplaced. That I must have somehow caused the
issue with his hind leg through bad riding.

I said something like that to my instructor, and her response was that it really wasn’t productive
to think that way. For one thing, there was no real evidence that I was riding him badly. My
instructor got exactly the same results that I did when she rode him, and I consider her to be an
excellent and sensitive rider. For another thing, Nimo has a history of not using that leg

My lesson ended without getting Nimo to use his left hind fully. But my instructor gave me
several suggestions for things to try with him over the next two weeks before our next lesson to
see if he improved. Her assessment was that his short-striding was likely due to an improper
rotation in his pelvis. Of course, there was always the possibility that he was having an issue
with arthritis or some other breakdown of his body due to the aging process (he will be 17 this
year!), but because the issue came up so suddenly without apparent injury, I was tempted to think
that one likely possibility was that he simply tried moving that way every once in a while to see
if I would notice. When I didn’t react, he started moving that way more consistently. And while
I could feel something wasn’t right, without knowing what it was, I didn’t have a good
foundation for correcting it. So it became a case of bad becoming normal, to use a phrase coined
by Dr. Temple Grandin.

My instructor recommended cantering more because canter can really help a horse’s pelvis
engage and move. She also suggested trying counter bend on a circle to the right (meaning Nimo
would be in left bend) and then coming out of the circle to a half-pass to the right (meaning that
he would have to change his bend). Another possibility was to use shoulder-in to the left with a
lot of angle to help engage and strengthen his hind leg. And finally, the saddle. As you may
recall, I bought $100 saddle off of eBay last summer and it has been working well. But Nimo
has gained a lot of muscle tone (I’m thrilled to say that his topline has definitely been
improving!) and it was clear to me when I watched my instructor that while the saddle didn’t
appear to be causing any pinching or pressure points, it just wasn’t sitting remotely level even
when Nimo had fully engaged his back.

So I headed home that day trying to stay positive about finding a solution, even though a part of
my brain was trying to have a meltdown.

Monday, March 18, 2019

A Dry Spell

Since the beginning of last May, the state of Virginia has been inundated with rain.  We've seldom gone more than 2 or 3 days without it for over 10 months.  At first, it wasn't so bad, but over time, the massive amounts of rainfall (we set a new record for most rainfall ever received in recorded history in 2018), got to be too much and mud was everywhere.  Plus a warm winter meant that the ground rarely froze and we lived with the mud through the winter.  Nimo has spent the majority of his time basically coated in mud.  I couldn't bathe him because he would just go back out in it and even if he didn't roll in it, it would splash all over his legs and tail.

Finally this past weekend was rain free and the entire week going forward is projected to be rain free.  <insert celebratory cheering>  Warm temperatures in the upper 60s and low 70s also meant that the ground started to dry out.

Nimo and I haven't been out on the trails for weeks because of the weather, the footing, and my schedule.  So yesterday, I cleared my schedule and retrieved Nimo for a much-needed trip down the trails.  We went to the Phelps Wildlife Management Area that is near where I board, so I could spend less time on the road and more time riding.  Also, the trails there were well-suited to what I wanted to accomplish.

Nimo's collected trot in the arena has been getting better and better.  And easier and easier.  So I really wanted to try it out on the trails.  I've been using the Pignot jog on the trails up to this point, and that has been working, but I admit to being a bit tired of two gaits - medium walk and Pignot jog.  I'm hoping to add canter into this mix soon, and if I want to ride with other people, I need to make sure Nimo's trot is very adjustable.

My instructor said that what she typically does is trot her horse very slowly while the horses she is riding with are walking.  I definitely ride with people who have horses that walk quickly and Nimo had a hard time keeping up before our Science of Motion work.  Now, his walk is too slow for all but the most pokey of cow ponies.  So, we need to be able to trot while others walk in order for the pacing to work out reasonably well.

The first step is to get Nimo used to using collected trot out on the trail.  I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but I figured we would never get the hang of it if we didn't try.

I made it to Phelps at around 10:30 in the morning and was surprised to find myself all alone in the parking lot.  I had parked at one of the more frequently-used lots because it has a good 6-mile out-and-back trail that I thought would work best for my little experiment.  I couldn't believe that a sunny, 50-degree day wouldn't bring out every equestrian within a 20-mile radius, so I checked the board to make sure that horse-riding hadn't suddenly been banned without my knowledge (there has been some drama between the horse riders and hunters that use the park and I'm not sure how it will end).  But horse riding was still a clearly marked use and no signs indicated an event, so I decided I was just lucky and got Nimo tacked up.

When we first headed out on the trail, I could tell Nimo was lacking some confidence, probably because it has been a while since he's been out on the trail by himself.  So I decided we would walk for awhile and I didn't ask for anything specific.  I just let him walk and chill and get used to the trail again.
We passed the gorgeous pond that is typically stocked for fishing.  But no one was fishing today!
Then I asked for a little Pignot jog for a few short stretches and he was doing well, but still quite alert.  I wasn't sure he would have the focus we needed for collected trot, but I found a fairly level section of trail and decided to ask for it and see what happened.  He did give me the collection I asked for but he was definitely a bit more animated than in the arena.  It wasn't quite the ultra smooth movement I've gotten used to, but it wasn't bad.

This was much prettier in person.  The tops of the trees in the distance look red and orange because they are starting to bud out.  And the Blue Ridge Mountains are just barely visible in the far center.
We kept going and I alternated between asking for Pignot jog and collected trot for short stretches.  Nimo's brain was not as focused as I would have liked, but I chalked it up to being out on the trail for the first time in a while and decided we would walk to the end of the trail and try trotting again when we turned around.

That worked much better.  Once we'd turned around, Nimo stopped seeing potential threats in every shadow and behind every bush and focused on Returning to the Trailer.  Now I was able to get trotting for longer stretches of trail and we could focus a bit more on the quality of movement.  And I was surprised to discover that Nimo started offering collected trot without me even asking.  It was a bit too strong and animated in many cases, but there was enough there to work with and I was able to get some really nice collection from him without a lot of pressure on the "bit."

I was actually riding in my trusty hackamore, another thing I haven't used in awhile.  We've been using the double bridle almost exclusively for a couple of months because I've finally gotten to the point where I can feel the difference between the double bridle and using the Baucher snaffle alone.  It's not really anything that I can put my finger on, but I feel like collection is a bit easier with the double bridle even though I think I use less pressure with it.  I'm not really sure how simply carrying two bits instead of one would make that difference (especially because I'm convinced I am still not nuanced enough with the use of my hands and reins to fully utilize the two bits), but it seems to.

Anyway, I am not interested in using a double bridle out on the trail at this point.  I can't imagine how Nimo would eat and drink.  For short rides, it probably isn't a big deal, but anything over an hour, and I want Nimo to be able to eat grass on the trail and drink if he wants to.  And I was curious to see how things worked with the hackamore.

My conclusion:  I didn't notice a big difference between the hackamore and the Baucher.  Nimo is working primarily off of my body language now, so I think any kind of pressure on his head, whether it is through a noseband or bit is enough to convey the message that I need more lift from his withers or more collection.  I used probably 1-2 pounds of pressure on the reins when I was asking for collection at the trot or asking him to improve his coordination during the walk.  That is not much different than what I would use with a snaffle.  It is a little heavier than what I would use with a double bridle, but I also think that over time, I will need less pressure when Nimo understands what I'm looking for.  And we even did have a few moments of what I consider "lightness" when my reins have no pressure at all and Nimo is holding himself together.

We worked on collected trot for probably about a 2-mile stretch of trail.  Nimo trotted most of it, slowing to a walk only for creek crossings and obstacles.  And the tractor.  That's right.  We encountered a full-sized tractor hauling a trailer with either a fertilizer or water container on it.  We were unfortunately on a section of trail that doesn't have a lot of room on either side, either due to trees or dense brush.  The last time we saw a tractor in this type of situation was when Nimo was four years old and I was out riding him around the immense facility that I boarded him at. (It was an old Thoroughbred breeding farm that had eleven different boarding facilities contained within it.)  Back then, when Nimo saw the tractor, he did a 180-degree spin and bolted.  He galloped for over a half mile before I was able to get him slowed down.

So I had a little bit of an unpleasant sensation when I saw the tractor.  But Nimo simply slowed to a walk and then a halt while the tractor slowed to a stop and the operator cut the engine.  Nimo took his time to pass it, but he never tried to spin or bolt and we passed it with probably 5 feet of clearance.  I was so proud of him.  I'm sure it's because the farm I keep him at now uses big tractors a lot for moving hay and manure, so he sees them around.  But none have ever been as close to him as this one was, and while the collected trot work was cool, going by this tractor was the highlight of the ride for me.  I love seeing how far this horse has come!

We finished the ride in about an hour and forty five minutes and I could tell Nimo was a bit tired.  Had I let him do the distance in his own haphazard and uncoordinated way like I used to, I'm certain he would have sailed through it like it was nothing.  But asking for collection for a big part of the ride was apparently a lot of work!  I'm excited to see what we can do on future rides now.  And I'm doubly excited that we might be able to reconnect with some of our riding buddies at some point later this year and be able to use correct movement for us and still maintain pace that works with other horses:)

Monday, February 18, 2019

In search of perfection

One thing that I always got frustrated with during my years working on conventional dressage with Nimo is that it seemed like there was this expectation that the first time you asked for a movement, you were supposed to get something really good.  That is, of course, quite illogical.  I think it is a rare thing that the first time any human or animal tries to do something, whether it is walking or reading or climbing or skipping, that it is perfect or at least close to it.  Instead, we must try over and over again and some may spend years or even their whole lives trying to perfect a skill.  Yet, in dressage instruction, it is hard to find images of something less than really good.  There are probably thousands of books and videos that show how to do something right (and occasionally how to do something wrong), but it is unusual to find instructions that show the process of going from something that is a first effort to something that is perfect.  I can only remember ever seeing something that showed a first effort once.  It was a Sylvia Loch video where she showed what looked like an 8-year-old kid on a pony attempting half-pass at the walk for the first time.  It was barely recognizable as half-pass, but it may well be the single most defining instructional video I ever watched because it showed a first attempt.  And Ms. Loch's voiceover talked about how you have to start from something and improve it instead of expecting perfection from the beginning.  After I saw that video, I started working on half-pass with Nimo.  This was years ago, so I didn't really know what I was doing, but I remember it was so empowering to think that if some 8-year old on a pony could try half-pass, so could we!

But with all the expensive horses bred exclusively for their beautiful, dressage-worthy gaits shown over and over on Facebook and Instagram and the internet, it can be hard for the average person with the average horse to visualize the process of dressage training.  I spent years stuck in a place where I thought Nimo could never do anything beyond a basic walk, trot, and canter.  He is a Friesian and not bred for dressage, so there is a limit to what he can do, right?  Even after I started Science of Motion, I really didn't hold out much hope that we would be able to do much beyond improving the basics.  One thing that kept me going, though, was all the videos people posted on the In-Hand Therapy Course Facebook forum.  Here I was seeing the true process, from first steps to small successes to true lightness.  I would watch these videos and sometimes see my own struggles and other times see things I aspired to create on my own.  But the most valuable thing is that the videos show the process.  The first steps of anything, whether it is piaffe or canter half-pass, don't look like the end goal, and seeing those first steps on a regular basis reminds me that achieving perfection is a process.

You may remember that at the beginning of this year, I set a goal for us to learn how to piaffe.  I made that goal from about the same place that I made my goal of doing endurance riding with Nimo.  I had read some books, watched some videos, and had a general idea of what the end point was supposed to look like without a lot of knowledge about the intermediate steps.  So it was all well and good for me to set the goal, but when it came to coming up with a plan for getting there, I was kind of at a loss beyond continuing our work at the collected trot.  Thankfully, I have a great instructor, who has a whole lot of patience and problem-solving skills:)

So I thought I would take some time today to write about the progress Nimo and I have been making in our Science of Motion work.  A couple of weeks ago, we had a really amazing lesson and our collected trot had improved enough that my instructor asked if we wanted to work on piaffe because she thought were ready.  Of course!  I was so excited to try, but I had no clue how we would approach it.  The traditional approach to teaching piaffe (in the US, at least) seems to be for a ground person to use a whip to tap the horse's hind legs while the rider does something else (I've never figured out exactly what - maybe ask for some movement?).  My sense is that tapping with the whip is supposed to somehow help the horse figure out to lift his legs and stay in place, but I will admit that I really don't understand that process and I've never had any instruction on it.  So if it is something you are familiar with, I hope you'll forgive my ignorance on the topic.

Science of Motion does not use a ground person with a whip.  In fact, I'm not sure that there is a standard approach to teaching piaffe.  During my lesson, my instructor said she used a walk pirouette to really collect her horse to help set him up for piaffe and then asked for basically a trot in place coming out of the pirouette.  He had been taught using the traditional US approach first, though, so she had a bit of a challenge to help him understand what she was looking for.

Nimo has never had any formal training in piaffe, so figuring out how to communicate the concept of trotting in place would be a series of educated guesses that would be refined given his feedback.  First, we did try walk pirouettes, but I wasn't able to get him collected enough to try piaffe.  So then we just worked on really collecting the walk while on a circle.  That was a lot more effective and I was able to ask for piaffe from a super collected walk.  Probably not surprisingly, Nimo was pretty confused about the idea of trotting in place and gave me his version of passage instead.  For those unfamiliar with dressage, the passage is considered an advanced form of trotting, much like piaffe.  It is a very elevated, collected trot, with a lot of suspension.

When it happened, I remember saying to my instructor, "It feels like piaffe, but there is still forward movement.  Are we on the right track?"  And she laughed and said, "That's passage!"  And all I could think was, "Wow!"  (In fact, I pretty much spent the next day wanting to shout at random people that we passaged!  It's possible that my husband got a bit tired of me talking about it...)  I'm sure that Nimo didn't look like the horses you might see at international competitions performing passage, but it was a pretty cool feeling.  And it really wasn't that hard to get, likely because Nimo and I have been developing a system of communication that isn't based on specific rules or aids.  I didn't do something special with my legs or my arms or a whip or spurs (in fact I don't wear spurs and while I do carry a whip and use it occasionally, I didn't feel any need to use it during this process).  Instead, we are learning to communicate using the tone of my body.  So when I need him to collect, I try to really firm up my abs and the whole front of my upper body.  I have no idea which muscles I'm using, so I couldn't give you a scientific explanation of what I'm doing.  It is more of a feeling (I get that that probably sounds a bit woo-woo from someone who is trying to use science to ride better, but I don't have a better way of explaining it).

And the feeling didn't come from me just getting on the horse and thinking, "OK, I have to collect him now."  Because it isn't that simple.  The feeling came from what is now years worth of effort on my part to try to figure out how the changes in my body affect him.  Essentially Nimo is my textbook.  I expect that if I got on another horse and tried the same thing with my body, it would either be less effective or not work at all because I wouldn't have put in the time to work with that horse.  The principles of how I use my body apply generally to other horses, but each horse is going to have a specific way of responding and might require more or less tone or other shifts in my position based on its training history, conformation, physical asymmetries, and preferences.  Identifying the specific way to communicate with any horse requires a certain base of knowledge and experience, but it also requires trial and error and a willingness to experiment a bit to figure out what works best for the individual horse.  This concept is so opposite from what is typically taught in lessons that I probably spent more time working on letting go of the formulas for aids then I did on figuring out how to use my body to communicate with Nimo.

I've started to think of riding a bit more like pairs figure skating or ballroom dancing.  There are technical things to know, like what a half-pass is and what cantering looks like, as well as a certain familiarity with my own body.  But there is this back-and-forth communication that can't be defined very well and that is the result of day after day of practicing and really paying attention how Nimo responds to things that I do.  I've never skated with anyone and my dancing skills are limited, but I remember from a few dance classes and lessons I've taken that the technical information can only get you so far before the two dancers have to figure out a way to work together to execute the movements.

So the passage Nimo and I got during the lesson was the result of a lot of things coming together.  My understanding of what we were trying to do (the piaffe), my instructor giving me some ideas and feedback about how to approach the problem (how to tell Nimo I wanted him to trot in place), and Nimo and I communicating with each other.  If I had to write out our dialogue, it might look something like this:

Me: OK, so you need to walk a lot slower.

Nimo: Is this slow enough?

Me: No, even slower.

Nimo: You're kidding me.  This is the slowest I can go.

Me: Well, I think you can go slower.  Try elevating your withers a bit.

Nimo: OK, how about this?

Me: Better!  Yes, that is the idea.  Now try trotting.

Nimo: You are insane!  That is impossible!  I can't do that!

Me: Yes, you can.  Just try it.

Nimo: I don't know how to go forward.

Me: Move your legs like you are trotting.

Nimo: Ga! This is so hard!

Me: I know, but you're doing it!  Keep trotting, but try to slow down.

Nimo: Grunt, grunt, grunt.

Me: Yay! You can take a break.

Nimo: I'm totally awesome!

Me: Yes, yes, you are:)

I think some people would have been tempted to keep working at getting the piaffe, but we didn't do any more that day.  For one thing, Nimo didn't really know the end goal.  He responded to my body absolutely correctly, given his base of knowledge.  He gave me more collection than he'd ever given and he basically performed a new movement and has a new understanding of how his own body can move.  I'll use that new understanding to help bridge the gap between passage and piaffe over the next days, weeks, and months to help him figure out what I want him to do.  (Teachers might use words like bridging or scaffolding to describe this kind of process.)

Over the next week, I continued work on explaining the concept of piaffe to Nimo.  I still wasn't completely successful, but the idea of passage did seem to be taking hold.  Unfortunately, I hit a week-long stretch where I wasn't able to ride, either because of the weather or my schedule, and with that much time off, it seems like it takes us a couple of rides to get back in sync with each other again.

We had another lesson yesterday, and I was really hoping to be able to get a video of us attempting piaffe, but we ended up working on a couple of other things instead.  My instructor really wants to get us focused on collected canter.  Collected canter is our nemesis, which my instructor knows very well, and she has, I think, decided that we might need a bit of pushing, which is OK, and probably necessary for our advancement.  I admit that the idea of piaffe is much easier for us than collected canter and I possibly don't work on collected canter as much as I should.

But before we could do anything, we had to address Nimo's use of his left hind leg.  He typically has a tendency to leave it on the ground a bit too long.  Some people might be tempted to think he has a stifle issue, but in reality, it is the coordination of his back that is the root of the problem.  If he coordinates his back and bends through his thoracic area, the stifle "problem" miraculously goes away.  For whatever reason, he was struggling a bit more than usual (perhaps the time off he'd had), so we spent the better part of half an hour working on shoulder-in and walk pirouettes to help him achieve better coordination.  We also sprinkled in a little collected trot.  When we finally had him moving well, we tackled the collected canter.

It was brutal.  Nimo is too dramatic.  I'm too dramatic.  But my instructor is nothing if not patient and determined, so she kept working with us.  And pointed out that we were giving up too soon.  (At least we were giving up as a team?)  So I worked on keeping myself together so Nimo would learn from me, hopefully.  And after what seemed like about 8 hours, we finally got what was 7-8 strides of really decent canter.

Part of my problem is that I have trouble recognizing Nimo's collected canter when it happens because it feels flat to me.  His canter has been so dramatic and full of upward movement for so long, that to feel practically nothing confuses me.

However, we made a little more progress on Nimo's collected trot in this same lesson, and I realized that his collected trot feels like nothing too.  In fact, at one point, I stopped him because I couldn't even tell what he was doing.  I had to ask my instructor if he was trotting because I could tell he was moving forward, but I had no idea at what gait.  It didn't feel like anything I'd ever felt before and I thought he might have suddenly turned into a pacer.  It was so smooth and effortless.

I had always assumed that there was a lot of work involved in collected gaits, and I guess there is in the sense that you have to do all this preparation to get the horse to the point where his body is ready to handle the collection and the rider is knowledgeable enough to ask for it.  But the actual collection itself feels almost effortless.  My brain is having some trouble with this concept.  And so is my body.  If I'm not struggling to balance and sit the trot, I feel like something is wrong because I spent so many years riding the equine equivalent of a jackhammer and being told that I simply needed to figure out how to control my body to handle all that movement.  (My favorite is when the instructor I had at the time told me that I had to keep sitting the trot for long enough that my body became exhausted and relaxed enough to handle the movement.  If your instructor gives you advice like this, you may want to get a new one.  It apparently never occurred to her that Nimo's movement didn't have to be reminiscent of a jackhammer.  That if it felt like that, we needed to work on changing it.  How awful that so many horses and riders are going through this when they don't have to!)  So when there is no movement, my body is at a loss about what to do.  As I discovered (and you can see for yourself in a bit), my body will try to bounce anyway because it doesn't know what else to do.

After we finished our work on collected canter, we went back to collected trot and worked on improving it.  I asked my instructor to take a short video so I could see what we looked like because I was honestly having trouble imagining what we looked like based on what I was feeling.

When I saw the video, I was really surprised by two things: how fast we were going (I would have sworn that we were going half the speed we really were) and how much I was still moving in the saddle.  I have spent a considerable amount of time training my body to be still at the walk, and although I spotted a few bobbles in the video, I think I'm well on my way to getting the hang of it.  For the trotting, though, I can see that I have some work to do convincing my body that it doesn't need to be moving around so much.

If you watch the video, you'll see 3 or 4 canter transitions.  Those are all Nimo.  I didn't ask him for them.  I think he still wanted to work on canter, so he added in a few transitions on his own when he felt like he could handle them.  That is fine, and you'll see that I don't correct him.  I simply let him do his thing and then we go back to collected trot work.

Our search for perfection is still very much underway, but I hope sharing part of our process is helpful or at least interesting.  There are times when he is overbent or going too fast or not coordinated enough.  All those moments are part of our search for perfection, and without going through them, we won't ever get better.  Mistakes are simply part of the process and we use them as feedback for what we can improve.