Monday, December 31, 2018

Getting Ready for 2019

I think most bloggers try to do a yearly recap at the end of the year, but in my case, I pretty much gave you my recap all in this month!  So I thought I'd start focusing on next year.  I plan to post my goals for the new year tomorrow, and as part of getting ready for that post, I decided to make a new conditioning log for Nimo.  

I have tried a few different methods in the past, from using a huge monthly calendar to using a specific leather journal to just tracking the basics in my regular planner.  Out of all those methods, I loved the big calendar the best, but I no longer have any place to hang it.  The method I liked least was a dedicated leather journal.  I had trouble using it because I was always misplacing it, and it was one more piece of clutter for the table.  I would often forget to write things down because it wasn't handy.  I ended up just using my planner to record details, which was definitely convenient for getting things written down in the first place, but then I would have to hunt and peck for information if I wanted it later, which I didn't like.

So this year, I have a compromise solution.  I put together a small traveler's notebook to use.  It tucks right into a pocket in my main planner so I don't have to keep track of it separately.  I've started using traveler's notebooks a lot lately and they are really growing on me.  They are inexpensive to buy and easy to make.  They are convenient and easy to use and don't take up a lot of space.

I ended up making one because one of my goals from this year (that will continue into next year) is Use it or Give It Away/Sell It/Throw It Out.  I have enough scrapbooking supplies to open my own store at this point and it is time to use them instead of hoard them!  So, I found some cool paper and took about 3 hours this morning to make one.

The cover is from the DCWV Once Upon a Time paper stack.  The quote is hard to read because my handwriting sucks, but it says, "Not all those who wander are lost."
I wish I could have gotten more of the alacorn on the front part of the cover, but I just love this scene so I used it anyway.  Also of note, I've had this paper for at least 10 years but didn't know what an alacorn was until recently because of my daughter's obsession with the My Little Pony show on Netflix.
It fits perfectly into one of the pockets of my Harry Potter planner.
The inside cover is made from a map I found online for the Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia area.  The calendar was printed from a free one I found online at
A sample of one of the monthly pages.  I should have enough space to record mileage and time or a few other details plus calculate weekly and monthly totals.
I wanted a place to keep track of deworming, vaccinations, and any other medical stuff that happens during the year.
Here is where I can record my hoof trimming so I can see better how frequently I am doing it.

I'm constantly experimenting with amounts and foods and I really need a place to write my notes about what works and what doesn't.
I included a few blank pages to keep track of anything that I forgot to set up already or if I need overflow pages.
The back page and cover, which is part of the same map from the front inside cover.
If you are interested in the details, the pages are 8.5 inches tall and a little over 8.5 inches wide that are then folded in half.  I make them just a smidge wider than 8.5 inches wide to account for the fold.  That way I still have a true 4.25 inch size to work with, which matters because the way I do the calendar pages is to use 1x1 inch boxes.  If I don't have a little more than 4 inches of width, I tend to run out of space on the pages that need to accommodate 4 boxes in the width.  The Midori TNs are usually 8.25 inches tall, but I feel like that wastes paper, which is in the 8.5 size.  And I have to cut a quarter inch off, which irritates me.  Normally I would just fold an 8.5x11 paper in half, but I made it narrower so the cover would work out to include the alacorn's head:)  The pages of the notebook are a specialty paper that looks like parchment but is thin like regular printer paper (so about a 20# weight).  I thought they went with the cover better than white paper and I have a pack of 100 pages, so I figured I might as well use them for something!  Once I had drawn in my calendar and other pages (I could have printed them too, but it makes my head hurt to get the pages set up right for printing, so I like drawing them instead), I stitched the book together using a bookbinding stitch and waxed linen thread.

Feel free to share how you track your conditioning/schooling rides!

Sunday, December 30, 2018

What's in Nimo's Feed Bucket?

I've written before about how my goal has been to use fewer processed foods and more "whole" foods in Nimo's diet.  I think it was last summer, maybe July or August, where I really committed to that goal.  I've been playing around with various combinations of foods since then, and I wanted to post an update of where we are at right now.

For the concentrate portion of Nimo's feed, he is currently getting the following foods split equally into three feedings:

3 lb oats (crimped and steamed)
1.5 lb shredded beet pulp (with molasses)
1 lb stabilized rice bran
6 oz ground flax seed
2 oz coconut chips
1 Tbsp Redmond salt

I've chosen each of these foods for a specific reason.  Let's start with oats.  I chose oats as the base grain because oats seem to be palatable and digestible for horses plus they are available at any feed store.  I feed Triple Crown's non-GMO crimped and steamed oats from Southern States Cooperative (SSC) because I like how clean the oats are, and SSC is about a 7 minute drive from my house.  It's nice to not have to drive far to renew my supply and the inventory is well-managed, so the store is never out of them.  I have played around with the amount a bit, feeding as much as 7 pounds a day.  What I discovered is that at amounts higher than about 5 pounds a day, Nimo starts to go "off" his feed.  That may be because horses don't do well on higher grain amounts in general, and it may also have something to do with results of the study that I've seen Dr. Garlinghouse reference that found that grain amounts over 5 pounds a day can lead to higher incidences of colic.  I can't find the study right now, but I think a summary was published in one of the AERC Endurance News magazines earlier this year.  (I had forgotten about it until I saw it mentioned in the magazine and that was when I made the connection about the amount of oats I'd been giving Nimo.)  I've settled on three pounds for now because it gives me some room to increase the amount when Nimo is working harder and he has been maintaining his weight with this amount.

I've added beet pulp for two reasons.  First, beet pulp has more calcium than phosphorus so that helps balance out the inverted calcium:phosphorus ratio of the oats (I also feed alfalfa hay for the same reason, but that's a story for another post).  Second, I can add more feed without exceeding the 5 pound grain maximum that I've set for Nimo based on the study referenced above.  I will note that I (or rather the barn staff) no longer soak Nimo's grain mix.  Nimo seems to prefer his feed dry and if the feed has any beet pulp in it and it soaks for longer than a few minutes or is too soupy, he will not eat it.  Because the barn staff vary in terms of how much water they typically add to his feed and Nimo's lack of fondness for wet feed, I decided it makes sense to stop the soaking.

I initially soaked his feed all the time because of two choke incidents he has had - one of which was related to pellets and the other chopped hay.  My vet said pellets are common causes of choke, especially in horses that bolt their feed.  In the case where Nimo experienced choke because of pellets, he wasn't actually getting a pelleted feed.  But his field mate was.  I suspect the barn staff was lazy and fed both horses together instead of bringing them in (as they were supposed to do and as I was paying for) and Nimo, being the dominant horse, forced the other horse to let him eat his food.  I got to spend the night before I went into labor with my daughter out at the barn for an emergency vet call as a result.  I ended up moving Nimo to a new barn about a year later and since then, I've been quite leary of pelleted feeds, which is one reason why I feed shredded beet pulp instead of pelleted beet pulp.

In terms of the amount, I have to admit that I don't have a particular reason for it except that I just added in what seemed like a good volume to match the oats.  Nimo has been maintaining his weight at this amount, but I'd like to do a more specific analysis to check the calcium:phosphorus ratio to see if I should change the amount.

I'm feeding one pound of Max-E-Glo Stabilized Rice Bran as a result of reading this blog post by Tigger Montague of BioStar.  The blog post is targeted toward foods for hard keepers and Nimo isn't really a hard keeper.  It goes back to my goal of improving his topline, and I thought increasing the fat content in his diet might help with that.  I've been feeding it for several months, and I'm not sure it has played a significant role in topline improvement, but one thing that it did do was increase the palatability of the total ration for Nimo.  From the second time I included it in his feed, he has been so much more excited about eating and literally spends a good minute after he is finished just licking the feed bin to make sure he has gotten every last bit of food.  When I phased out all the processed feed I'd been giving him, I noticed a marked lack of enthusiasm for his food, although with time, his enthusiasm did increase.  But the addition of the rice bran really seems to add something tasty for him, so even if it doesn't make much difference for his top line, I plan to keep it because it improves the palatability of the ration.  I may play with the amount a bit, though.  If it is in the ration solely for improving the palatability, I suspect a half pound may be sufficient.  However, I may try increasing it up to two pounds when Nimo is working more to see if that makes a difference before reducing the amount.

Ground flaxseed is also currently part of Nimo's diet, but I waver on how much longer that will continue.  I ordered a bag of organic flax seed from New Country Organics and I was horrified to see how "dirty" it was.  There is so much other stuff mixed in with the flax seeds and I don't even know what some of the other seeds are.  You may be able to tell from the picture above that the flax seed has other things mixed in, but I did pull quite a few other seeds and chaff out before taking the picture.  Plus, I have to grind the seeds every few days.  In the summer, I was grinding the seeds fresh every day because of the heat, but now that it is cooler, I feel like I can get away with every 2-3 days.  It really doesn't take that much time, but it is one more step in the process and I can't really tell that they add anything.  Recently, I did see this article by Dr. Getty, though, and it makes a good case for including flax seeds, at least during the months when grass is scarce.  So I may continue with them for a few more months at least, but try a different source to see if I can get a cleaner product.  I also noted that the article recommend a half cup to a full cup of flaxseeds for maintaining health horses at a normal weight.  The 6 oz that I feed Nimo translates to 1 cup, so I think I'm in the ballpark in terms of the amount, but I could try increasing it a bit if I can keep Nimo well-exercised this winter.

One thing that I feed that is probably unusual is coconut chips (or shredded coconut).  I started feeding dried coconut back in 2015 and wrote about it in this post.  Since then, I've played around with feeding it, not feeding it, and changing the amount.  Right now, the 2 oz I'm feeding is equivalent to 1 cup, which is a little more than I used to feed but not as much as I have fed.  After over 3 years of using coconut, I think the only thing I've noticed is an extra shine to Nimo's coat when I feed it.  That is valuable in and of itself, so I will continue to feed it, but I don't think I will exceed 1 cup a day, and I will probably decrease the amount a little in the summers when the grass is good.  One thing that I don't like about feeding it is that it can be expensive if I don't order it from Tropical Traditions.  But Tropical Traditions doesn't always have it in stock, so I end up having to order through Amazon or use something that doesn't look as good from the grocery store.  I would be more enthusiastic about feeding it if I could find a more reliable, inexpensive supply.

The final thing that I add to Nimo's feed is salt (he also has a salt block in his stall and sometimes in his field).  In particular I use Redmond Rock Crushed.  I can't remember when I first started using it, but it was probably about 3 years ago.  I'd been feeding a human grade Himalayan salt and it was just so expensive that I started looking for cheaper options.  Several people recommended the Redmond brand salt to me and I happened to see what was then called Daily Red at a local feed store.  I tried it and noticed that Nimo seemed to maintain his weight better with it.  So I've fed it ever since.  I feed about 1 Tbsp now, but I double that during the warmer months.

Now that I've sort of stabilized the amounts of foods and the types of foods that I am feeding Nimo, I think the next step in this process is for me to analyze the macro and micro nutrients in this ration to see if there are any notable deficiencies.  I also really want to get the hay the barn is feeding analyzed.  Each year I vow to get it done, and every year something happens that keeps me from doing it.  For this year, the analysis may need to wait a bit until I'm not on furlough anymore, but hopefully before January is done, I can get some data to use to assess what, if any, changes might be appropriate for me to make.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

And we're back at Whitney

I met a friend again today at Whitney State Forest for a quick ride in what is starting to feel like never-ending mud.  Over an inch of rain yesterday did nothing to improve the trails in the area, but we managed to eek out another hour-long ride.

We just walked the trails except for one short stint of trotting where the footing was still intact.  But it was a beautiful day (with sun!) and the temperature almost got to 60 degrees, so it was easy to pretend it was March instead of the dead of winter.

Nimo got lots of practice with water crossings, which he kind of needed.  When I spent so much time riding with the friend that I broke up with over the summer, Nimo got out of the habit of crossing with confidence because the other horse almost always went first.  (My friend didn't have a lot of patience for waiting for Nimo if he crossed first because it will sometimes take him a few seconds to a minute to judge the footing, so she often insisted on going first so she didn't have to wait.)  By the end of today's ride, he was doing quite well and back to his usual self, which is much appreciated.

Back at the trailer after the ride
I am still loving the current set-up that I have with the saddle, saddle pads, and girth.  Although, I do need to order new and longer tug straps for the breast collar because it is currently on its last hole and I have extra clips extending the length.  Part of the reason the extra length is needed is probably the change in saddle, which has d-rings a bit farther back than my old one.  However, another part of it is all the muscle Nimo has put on in his shoulder area.  It's a great tangible result from all the training we've been doing.:)

Friday, December 28, 2018

Riding at Whitney State Forest

Whitney State Forest holds some special memories for me.  It was the first place that I rode Nimo by himself when we started our endurance journey, and it was a frequent conditioning location for us in the early days.  However, the park is not that big - only about 150 acres - and we basically outgrew it and moved on to bigger trail systems (that also have much better parking).

This year, though, has been a tough one for finding places to ride that aren't covered in mud or actually flooded because of all the rain.  Even my go-to location for wet weather riding, Phelps Wildlife Management Area, had a flood alert earlier this month and most trails were impassable at one point or another (a friend hiked there and put pictures on her Facebook page and I was glad I hadn't attempted to ride).  Other locations like Graves Mill, which has pretty rocky trails but also some creek crossings, were flooded as well, leaving me few options.  (Also, an astounding amount of the rain we've gotten has fallen on a weekend, which has made finding days to ride on the trails even more difficult and hunting season means that some places aren't safe to ride except on Sundays.)

All of which meant that Nimo and I hadn't been out on the trails for probably a month by the time last weekend rolled around.  I had a lesson scheduled for Saturday, and normally that would mean that I would stay at the barn to ride, but I was desperate to get out of the arena.  And I think Nimo was too, because he's not usually particularly excited on weekends when we haul twice and sometimes tries to pretend that he doesn't see me on that second day.  But this weekend, he walked right up to me at the gate of his field and basically loaded himself onto the trailer, so I suspect he was ready for some out-of-the-arena time too.

We met a friend at Whitney in the afternoon on Sunday, and I crossed my fingers that we would have enough room to park.  The parking lot at Whitney can handle four creatively-parked smaller rigs plus a few cars, so it typically fills up fast.  I was hoping people would ride earlier in the day and be gone by the time we got there, and my wish was fulfilled.  My friend and I were the only horse people there and we didn't have any trouble getting parked.

Because it was an afternoon ride and it still gets dark pretty early, we only rode for an hour, but a glorious hour it was.  The trails were slick in many places, but only one short section had standing water, and we even found a couple of places where the footing was solid enough to trot.  The trails were also mostly clear, with only a couple of downed trees that were easily negotiated.
There are a couple of man-made clearings at Whitney, but overall, it is trees, trees, and more trees.  Staying on the trail proved a bit challenging in a few places because the leaves camouflaged the trail so well!
It wasn't the more intense conditioning ride that I've been hoping to get, but it was wonderful to be back out in nature.  And I'm very glad that all the moisture we are getting is rain.  If it were snow, I don't think we'd be able to dig our way out until March.

So for better or for worse, Whitney is likely going to be a place I ride at more frequently for the near future, anyway.  In fact, I'm planning to ride there again tomorrow because, of course, it has been raining all day today:)

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Letting the horse be the boss

When I first started out with horses, I remember that the common advice was to make sure the horse knew who was boss.  The way you conveyed that knowledge to the horse was sometimes violent.  Thankfully, the horses that I was lucky enough to interact with were mostly well-behaved and I don't remember ever having to engage in a lot of serious corrections...until I got Nimo.

Nimo came to me not knowing how to pick up his feet and being almost impossible to lead.  In hindsight, I'm not sure why I didn't question that more when I got him.  (I suspect it was because my brain was saying, "Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God, I have a Friesian!")  I'll never forget the first time I picked up his feet, though.  It was before I bought him and I was just going through a basic examination of my own before I had a vet out to do a pre-purchase exam.  I asked him to pick up his feet and he threw a temper tantrum.  It was then that the seller mentioned that he didn't believe in having young horse's feet trimmed, so Nimo had never had a farrier or anyone else really touch his feet.  I think my jaw may have dropped in disbelief.  Nimo's feet were not in too bad a shape for the inattention, but one thing I insisted on as part of the purchase was that a farrier trim his feet before I picked him up.  I never knew how that was accomplished, but I suspected drugs were involved.  I will note that the seller was otherwise very good and the horses were well cared for.  He was new to selling Friesians (or any type of horse), though, and I suspect he had gotten bad advice from someone about young horse's hooves.

So I had my work cut out for me when I brought Nimo "home" to the boarding stable I intended to keep him at.  Horses at boarding stables really do need to have good behavior and interact safely with humans, but because Nimo was young (only 14 months) and very personable, everyone at the barn was willing to give him some time to grow up.  As luck would have it, I had a clinic scheduled with Mark Rashid already set up for two weeks after I bought Nimo.  I had signed up for it many months before, when I still had my last horse, Preacher.  Preacher unexpectedly had to be put down due to a catastrophic injury to his hock that could not be fixed.  The joint had shattered when he was out in the field.  It was a heartbreaking event because I had always thought of Preacher as my "heart horse."  And to be honest, I'm not sure that I have ever really recovered from that horrible day.  There is still a pain in my heart that belongs to Preacher.

But I also knew that I could not live without a horse, so about 2 months after Preacher's death, I had Nimo.  Unlike Preacher, who basically knew everything and understood everything and was this amazing animal to work with, Nimo knew nothing.  I will be forever grateful to Mark Rashid for his help at the clinic.  The technique he used to help me figure out how to lead Nimo is one that I'm not sure he would use today, but it didn't involve any force and it was surprisingly effective.  I think I've posted about that particular clinic before, but basically what he had me do was every time Nimo stopped moving, I would quickly turn around and make myself big while yelling and acting nuts.  The idea was to show Nimo that as long as he followed me around, I would be normal; if he stopped, I would turn into a crazy person.  So he could control whether I was normal or crazy by moving or not moving.  That was, in fact, the opposite of showing the horse that the human is the boss.  It was giving control to the horse.  And that was my first real lesson in learning that everything I'd been told about horse behavior and horse/human interactions was probably wrong.

Over the years, I became obsessed with getting a better understanding of how I could nonviolently and still safely interact with Nimo.  I've done a lot of experimenting and I'm sure that some of those experiments were not the best ideas, but I do have a horse that seems to behave himself most of the time and that I feel comfortable handling.  The barn staff where I keep him all tell me that is easy to handle and take care of, so I think I managed to bungle my way through training him.  Although, he definitely appreciates routine and knowing what to expect.  He is quite solid in those situations.  In new situations, he can be a bit more unpredictable and still a little spooky, but I've noticed a mellowing with age and experience.

So anyway, fast forward to a few weeks ago during a lesson that Nimo and I were in.  One of the interesting things about Science of Motion is that quite a bit of responsibility for achieving goals is handed off to the horse.  The rider's job is to educate her body and use it effectively, but the horse is given a lot of room to experiment with responses and mistakes are to be treated as no big deal.  That is because mistakes typically happen for one of two reasons: either the rider didn't effectively communicate, in which case, the horse shouldn't have been expected to know what to do anyway or the horse is trying to figure out how to respond but needs more time and practice to get it right.

In this particular lesson, I had started with a sense of accomplishment because Nimo and I had been making such great progress over the past 2-3 months and I was expecting that progress to continue.  Instead, we started really having trouble with achieving good balance.  Nimo was walking too quickly and it felt like he was ignoring my communication (others might refer to it as blowing through my aids).  I could not slow that horse down to save my life.  My instructor and I treated it as a problem-solving exercise and we methodically went through my position - my head, my shoulders, my hands, the tone in my core, my legs, my seat.  We went through visualization exercises that have helped in the past.  But nothing was having an effect.

Thankfully, no one, including Nimo, was getting too frustrated with the process, but my instructor did finally ask me to start using a lot of half-halts.  Half halts in SOM are not the same as in conventional dressage.  They are really a quick upward motion of the hands so that the bit makes contact with the mouth (hopefully not too harshly) to remind the horse to lift his withers/shoulders, particularly if said horse is rooting down on the bit or just very heavy.  The contact is very short, like less than a second.  I suck at these kinds of half halts because I'm terrified of putting too much pressure on Nimo's mouth.  At one point, my instructor said something like, "You're not half-halting a kitten!"  But even that wasn't working.

My instructor was still game to continue, although I was thinking it just might be one of those days when giving up and trying again later might be a good idea.  Nimo, of course, had been paying attention to everything going on, and while I felt like he was giving me zero assistance, he had apparently been thinking through the situation and came up with a solution that neither my instructor nor I had thought of - he simply started trotting.

In my experience, it is typically a good idea to get things straight at a slower gait before attempting the same thing at a faster gait.  But learning to communicate with and ride a horse is actually not a linear process.  Nor is it one that necessarily benefits from a systematic approach.  Learning often occurs in leaps and spurts due to random occurrences instead of a step by step instruction manual.  And in this case, what had happened was that both my instructor and I had fallen into the step by step trap.  We were methodically dissecting the situation and trying to change one variable at a time.  That's great if you are performing a scientific experiment on bean plants, but may not be super helpful if you've got a very dynamic process to manage.

You may remember an earlier post from this month when I mentioned the concept of tensegrity.  Well, the problem I was having in this case was that my tensegrity was not good.  I was not in harmony with Nimo.  And I couldn't feel how to get into harmony.  I was doing what I used to do sometimes when warming up for band practice with my flute.  I would play it and I could tell that it wasn't quite in tune.  So I would adjust the instrument a little this way and a little that way, but I could never get it in tune until the oboe player with perfect pitch would play her A note.  Once I had the note to match, I could adjust my instrument properly.

By trotting, Nimo gave me enough movement so that I could better feel when my body wasn't in the right place for him.  All of a sudden it became much easier for me to feel when our bodies were disconnected and I could make the change I needed to make to get us back in harmony.  I could communicate much more clearly with him and we were able to achieve the balance we'd been trying to get for almost an hour.

It was a stunning realization for me - Nimo could participate in this process just as much as I could.  His role isn't to simply respond to me, but to actively engage in the process, perhaps even direct it sometimes.  Our lesson ended up being a three-way collaboration.  My instructor could tell me what she saw from the ground, Nimo could tell me what he was feeling and offer different types of movement, and I could adjust my body to work with Nimo to help him balance.

This all may sound like so much nonsense to some of you.  And I'm not sure that I'm doing a great job of communicating what the situation was like, but I will say that I think I have a very different perspective based on that lesson.  I had perhaps never really let go of the idea that I have to be in charge until that day.  Nimo could easily refuse to move or buck me off or scrape me on the arena wall if he didn't want to do what we are doing.  Instead, he suffered through almost an hour of me making mistake after mistake (and doing nothing other than walking too fast which was basically his way of saying that I hadn't gotten it right yet) and when realizing that I was never going to figure out what needed to be done, he offered a solution.  I kind of wish he would have offered it sooner, but I'm not sure that I would have taken it if I hadn't tried everything else I could think of.

I had dismissed his ability to contribute to our work and I hope I never do that again.  My real goal is not to make Nimo always do everything I ask him to do as soon as I ask him to do it, aka mindless obedience.  Instead, my goal is to be able to communicate with Nimo under saddle so that I can help him to be physically fit and able to be ridden safely and in a way that benefits him instead of hurts him.  The path that we take to get to that point doesn't have to be of my construct, especially because I have no real idea of how to get there anyway.  Who better to tell me if my position is correct and in harmony than Nimo?  To this day he still stops dead in his tracks if I get really out of balance in the saddle or if he feels really unbalanced (there is a lot of stopping and starting in our rides in the arena because of this...).  I've had the chance to ride quite a few times since that lesson, and while I haven't turned into a riding master, I have noticed that I feel more in tune with Nimo.

So even if SOM methods aren't your thing, perhaps my experience will encourage you to listen more closely to your horse and give him the chance to be the boss sometimes:)

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Bull Run Hunt Hunter Pace Fall 2018

The morning of November 11 dawned sunny and cold (26 degrees).  Nimo and I were heading over to the location of the Bull Run Hunt's fall hunter pace south of Culpeper.  It was being held in a new location this year, although quite close to the normal venue of Locust Hill Preserve.  The hunter pace had been rescheduled from an earlier date.  I can't remember exactly why, but it was likely something to do with the buckets of rain we've been getting this year.  Luckily, a private farm in the area was available for the rescheduled date, and the parking did not require four-wheel drive.

Nimo and I have done quite a few hunter paces during the last few years.  There is a fall series of them in the area that seems to expand a bit every year.  They are the fun version of a much more serious competition, which is great for us because Nimo will only jump the smallest of obstacles, and jumping is not required in the pleasure division.  The courses are almost always located at places that people normally can't ride at, like private farms or preserves, and the trails are well-marked.  The terrain is typically hilly, so it makes for great conditioning too.

I've become more and more pleased with Nimo's behavior at hunter paces.  They have definitely taught him to wait patiently at the start, even if other horses are going out ahead of us.  And he's learned to be passed by trotting and even cantering horses while standing still.  He will even watch the horses that have passed him go off out of sight while standing still and then be manageable as we start moving again.  Those are all great skills for endurance rides too, but the hunter paces seem to have a lower level of excitement in the air, and I think it helps Nimo keep his wits instead of getting amped up.

My friend and I arrived at 8:30 and got the paperwork taken care of before saddling up.  We were the first on the course at just after 9 am (apparently the cold weather and recent time change made for some sleepy competitors!).  We definitely could have waited too, but I honestly prefer the cooler temps when Nimo is working and with the location being only 25 minutes from the barn, I figured we could get the ride in, and I could be home by 1:00 and still have something left of the day so I could work on other things too.

We started the course by heading straight up a small mountain, so the horses were content to walk.  It was actually the first real climbing Nimo and I have done for months, so I was glad to see the climb (I'm not sure Nimo felt the same way, though).  My friend's horse is young and doesn't have much experience with more rugged terrain, so we went slowly.  Our slower pace was perfect because it meant I had more time to judge whether Nimo was keeping his back engaged while we climbed (he did!).

As we descended from the mountain, there was no getting around the fact that the ground was soft and really muddy in places.  We'd been getting so much rain that only the rockiest of trails escaped the mud that was spreading all over the state.  My friend's horse struggled a bit with all the mud, especially because Virginia mud is usually as slick as ice.  Nimo handled it pretty well, but he's had quite a few years of experience with it at this point, and even he slid a few times.

Because of all the mud, we mostly walked the course.  I have often ridden in hunter paces with a partner who is a bit competitive, so it was nice to ride with someone who was just there to get experience for her horse and enjoy the day.  I had hoped to do more trotting, but the footing was just not appropriate for a young horse to be wrestling with.  And it would have been hard for Nimo and I to work on nuances of balance while he struggled through deep and slippery footing.

Wooded section of the course that was just lovely in the fall light
We did find a few places, though, where the grass was thick enough that the horses had good traction, so I got to practice trotting Nimo.  Normally I wouldn't refer to it as practice, but given our Science of Motion work, I was attempting to change the way Nimo moved when he trotted.  It meant slowing him down more than a little and focusing on his balance rather than his speed.  He was doing pretty good at managing his body when I rode with my instructor, but I knew that putting him back in the hunter pace scenario would trigger a sort of muscle memory that I would have to work on.  He definitely did want to trot faster (and by doing so, use an isometric hold which was not helpful), but he did listen as I asked him to slow down.  Overall, I thought he did very well.  He seemed to recognize that I was asking him to change his movement and he responded most of the time:)  We still have more work to do before we are ready for more intense conditioning efforts, but it was a good start.

We were passed by 2 or 3 other teams who were definitely competing rather than out for a pleasure ride, but both horses did well.  I love that Nimo and I can start returning the favor to my friend.  She used to have a very steady trail horse that Nimo and I relied on more than once to help us negotiate tricky sections of trail and who even got us back to the trailers once when we got very lost on a cold and snowy day.  Nimo will probably never be quite as steady as my friend's old horse, but he will lead most of the time and he behaves himself most of the time too (except when there are 40 horses ahead of him!), so he can set a good example.  I have come to realize how important it is for horses who lack confidence or experience to have another horse or two to help them through the situation.  Horses are, without question, social animals who have evolved to function in a herd setting, so it makes sense that they would learn better by following an example rather than trying to figure it out on their own.

We finished our ride at just short of an hour and a half, I think.  The optimal time was surprisingly much faster than that, so perhaps it was based on the course if it had been dry.  Or other people felt more comfortable trotting and cantering through the mud than I did.  But the most important thing was that Nimo and I had a good ride with a friend on a beautiful day on a new trail.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Merry Christmas!

I hope all of you have a Merry Christmas!  Or if you don't celebrate Christmas, I still hope you have a lovely day:)

Monday, December 24, 2018

Riding at Great Meadow

Because of the success Nimo and I were having with our lessons, I decided that the best thing to do was to forego riding with other people temporarily and to increase the frequency of the lessons so that we could make some progress without having to try to match other horses' paces or rider preferences.  Through the end of October, we had a lesson every two weeks (I used to ride in a lesson about once a month) and most of those were out on the trail.  It was typical for our lesson rides to be about 3 hours, if you can believe that.  I mentioned to my instructor that I felt like she might be giving me too much time - after all, I was still paying the same amount I would for a one hour lesson.  But she pointed out that her horse was getting great exercise and she enjoyed the rides as much as I did.  She doesn't have the opportunity to ride with fellow SOM students that much, and I think she experienced the same kind of relief that I did to be able to ride with a like-minded person.

But I knew I couldn't only ride with my instructor forever.  At some point, we would have to try riding with other people.  For one thing, I missed my riding friends.  For another thing, I still had endurance riding in the back of my mind (well, probably more in the forefront if I'm honest - I miss that too).  Plus, as you may have heard, the Washington, DC area (and much of the east coast) has been having a seriously wet year and by the end of October, everything was so wet, we couldn't ride out from my instructor's farm anymore - there was too much mud and the trails were on private land, so not maintained the same way a State Park would be, and riding on them would cause too much damage.

A friend of mine has been working very hard on a particular initiative in the county where we ride a lot.  A nonprofit organization has been formed and a short trail has been developed that isn't too far from where I board Nimo.  It is too short to do me much good right now, but eventually, it might be enough to work for us, especially because it is only a 10-15 minute drive away.  I hadn't been able to do much to support this effort so far because my time (and money) is mostly committed to other things, but the organization was hosting a fund-raising ride at Great Meadow on November 4, and I decided that was the perfect thing for us to do.  I could support a worthy cause and ride at the same time.

Great Meadow, for those who aren't familiar with the area, is a premiere equestrian event facility (although I think they host other types of events too).  The facility hosts FEI-level jumping and three-day events, polo matches, the Virginia Gold Cup Steeplechase, and an assortment of other competitions.  However, you can't just ride there.  Unless you are competing, the facility is off-limits to us mere mortals who are not engaged in international level competition or pursuing crazy activities like galloping a horse over giant fences for two miles.

One other thing the facility does, though, is allow fund-raising rides.  The organization my friend was part of had secured a donation for a section of the facility with a parking lot and the plan was to have a group trail ride around the facility.  When I signed up for this ride, I really didn't think it through very much.  In my head, I sort of imagined maybe 20 people signing up and splitting up into 2-3 groups to ride around the 380-acre facility.  I did not imagine a group of 40 riding all together.  And yet, that is what happened.

The fund-raising effort was so popular that more people signed up than the organization ever thought of, and despite turning people away in droves, there were still about 40 people at the ride.  With so many, the trail leader thought it might be a good idea to have several riders in the middle and at the end of the group who would be "helpers" that would look out for people having trouble.  My friend asked if I could ride with her at the back.  Given our whopping two experiences as a drag team, I figured Nimo and I could handle that.  I also thought that might allow us to proceed at a slower walk than the group, which would fit right in to what we'd been working on during our lessons.

As you're reading, you've probably already recognized the sheer folly of my actions.  First in going on a huge group ride as our first foray back into riding with people and second in planning to stay behind 40 horse and rider teams with a horse who normally sees only that number of horses at an endurance competition.  There was a little voice in the back of my head saying these same things to me, but it was very quiet and I ignored it as I am prone to doing when reality tries to insert itself into my idealistic plans.

I haven't done a group ride in awhile.  Like maybe 2-3 years.  I don't really like group rides anymore, but at the time of this ride I couldn't remember why.  Well, it wasn't too long before the reasons became apparent, and they were magnified because this ride had so many people.

The first problem was that there were a lot of people who were unprepared to ride.  They forgot important pieces of tack, like their saddles.  This is because for at least a few, it was their first ride all year or at least in many months.  So they sort of forgot what to pack and how to get on their horses. (I'm not kidding.)  This lack of preparedness delayed the start of the ride.

To get everyone in the same place and ready to head out, the organizers decided to use a nearby arena as a meeting place.  Because of the delay in starting, we ended up with about 40 horses walking (or jigging) around in a not-that-big arena.  I have to say that I was pretty impressed with Nimo because he has never competed in a group type of competition in an arena, and the only time I have ever been in an arena that crowded was the time I competed in an open western pleasure class at the Iowa State Fair back in probably 2000.  At the time, I had a lovely Appaloosa whose temperament made him immune to almost all types of excitement and he handled not just the competition but also the incredible crush of people in the horse barn with barely the flick of an ear.  Nimo is not anything close to the same temperament, but he did great in the arena.  What impressed me more, though, is that because we would be riding at the back of the group, we had to stay behind in the arena while everyone else left.  When it was time to start the ride, Nimo stood still on a loose rein and watched all the horses leave and behaved very well.  "See," I told the little voice in the back of my head, "it's fine.  Nimo is a rock star."  The little voice sighed.

The one problem with this plan was that some people were still getting on their horses (one lady never did and eventually gave up) and milling around.  After we'd lost sight of the main group, my friend and I told the five or so people still left that they were on their own and would have to catch up because we didn't know the route and didn't want to miss the ride all together.

And we headed out down the road that formed the first part of the route around the facility.  We started trotting to catch up to the main group which we could see far, far ahead.  My friend was riding a young horse and he was doing great.  Nimo was also doing fine because trotting to catch up to a group seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing to do.  As we caught up, we checked to see if any riders were behind us, and sure enough, those last five riders were sort of trying to get caught up.  We decided to stop and wait for them.  There was nice green grass at that point and Nimo started eating and continued to behave himself.  "Ha, ha!" I said to the little voice inside my head.  "Look at my awesome horse!"  The little voice shook its head.

Finally, the lagging riders caught up with us and we proceeded to walk much too fast for what I imagined working on as we caught up to the main group.  And this is when my troubles really started.  Once we had caught up and settled into the slower walk that I was hoping to practice, Nimo was horrified.  You see, the terrain at Great Meadow is mostly hilly, open fields with a few patches of wooded areas.  This is Nimo's favorite terrain to ride in and probably reminds him of his favorite endurance ride, Foxcather, which is held on the same kind of terrain.  With as many horses as there were, I'm sure that also reminded him of an endurance ride, and he could not mentally grasp why we were walking with all those hills to trot in front of us.

Look at these hills that are perfect for trotting, according to Nimo:)
All the green in November is still hard for me to get used to, even though I've lived here for over 17 years.
So I had my hands full for the next hour and a half as I tried to convince Nimo to walk slowly.  The one good thing is that he kept his back engaged and lifted for the entire ride.  He'd been doing that without a problem during the rides I was doing with my instructor, but I had become convinced it was at least in part because there was a horse with him doing the same thing.  I worried that with no model horse to follow, he would go back to his old hollow self.  But he did not.  And that plus one other occurrence was what saved this ride from becoming a complete disaster.

We were probably about halfway into the ride, not long after that first picture above was taken, and the group of horses had mostly trotted up a hill.  Because we were in the back, we were also riding with a group of people on horses who, shall we say, were less motivated.  These horses (and their riders) showed no desire to trot up the hill.  Nimo was very frustrated by this point because of the slow pace and when I told him he could not trot up the hill, he protested, but in an unexpected way.  We had actually stopped because the riders at the back wanted to wait until the group was all the way at the top of the hill, so they could leisurely walk their horses (somebody please shoot me!).

Nimo really wanted to trot (and so did I - the slow pace was torturing us both!).  Even though I hadn't been doing what I would consider endurance conditioning with him, we were still putting in a lot of hours under saddle out on the trail and in the arena, so he was pretty fit.  When I asked him to continue to halt, he shifted his whole body and lightly trotted in place before adding a canter stride in place.  One of the ladies standing near me said, "Wow! He really wants to go!"  I said, "Yes, he does."  And then I said, "And I'm going to let him.  I'll see you at the top of the hill!"  And I let Nimo trot up the hill.  He didn't buck or bolt or act goofy.  He just trotted up the hill like he always does.

You might be wondering why I let Nimo trot up the hill because it could be seen as giving in to bad behavior.  (I don't look at things that way anymore, though.)  There are two reasons.  The first is that he piaffed and cantered in place (it was one stride, but it was really amazing!).  The piaffe is something that I have wanted to do for at least 20 years.  I'm not sure when I added that to my horse-riding bucket list, but it was a very long time ago.  I had given up on that particular item many years ago, because I came to believe it was out of our reach.  With Science of Motion, though, piaffe is not considered a particularly advanced movement, and it is often the next thing for a horse to learn after collected trot.  We have not worked on piaffe specifically yet, but we have been working on the feeling of lightness needed to do it.  That Nimo choose to piaffe instead of pull on me and drag me up the hill is a testament to how far he has come from the spooking, bolting, bucking horse that I wrote about in yesterday's post.  And the lightness!  I would have scored us a perfect 10 if I'd been in competition because there was no tail-wringing and drudgery that is often seen in show ring.  It was just light and beautiful and maybe even more important, volunteered.

The second reason is that I knew Nimo had a lot of steam building up and even a short trot would go a long way toward displacing it without drama.  I have learned that if I give Nimo an opening, even if it isn't exactly what he is looking for, it can help diffuse tension.  And it did.  He was perfectly happy to wait at the top of the hill for the other riders while they walked up.  I still had my hands full for the rest of the ride and my body ached afterward because of all the tone I'd had to maintain to help keep him walking, but there was no bolting or bucking or other behavior that I might have expected from him in earlier years.  (The little voice in my head kept reminding me that I wouldn't have been so sore if I'd just ridden with one other person...)

View near the end of the ride.  The fall color came late to Virginia this year because of a warm fall, and this picture doesn't even come close to capturing all the beauty!
While the ride was really not the best choice for us, especially given my current training goals, I am glad I went.  I do want to support the effort my friend is working on (although in hind sight, perhaps I could have just send the entry fee and not ridden) and I enjoyed spending time with my friend, who I hadn't ridden with in months.  Plus it was a great reminder about why I don't do these types of rides anymore.  The endurance advice of "Ride your own ride" is definitely applicable to what we are doing now, and it's up to me to choose a little better based on what we need to work on.  Which is what I did the following weekend:)

Sunday, December 23, 2018

The Day I Cried After My Lesson

If you've followed my blog for a long time, you may remember me writing more than once about how instrumental conditioning for an endurance ride has been to helping Nimo be more confident outside the arena.  From the very beginning of Nimo's training under saddle, I wanted to work on riding outside the arena because that is my true love.  I grew up riding around the countryside in North Dakota, whether it was on my grandma's farm or around the boarding stable where we kept our horses (we had 3 at one point!).  Because I had an Arabian for most of that time, a lot of the time riding was spent at a canter or even a gallop.  I loved it and never felt like a whole person unless I was riding.

When I started Nimo under saddle, though, it was a different story.  The place I boarded did have access to trails but the equestrian communities that were in the area and were supposed to have easements for trails became increasingly difficult about allowing access for people who only boarded in the area instead of lived there.  I was told it was for liability reasons, but I suspect it was more than that.  Living in that area was very expensive (so was boarding!) and people who live in expensive communities seem to prefer to exclude others rather than include them.  So my ability to ride off the farm was limited, although there were a couple of boarders who also lived in the community.  If you could convince one of them to take you, you could ride the trails, but I started discovering then and am still discovering that most people at boarding stables are terrified to take their horses outside the arena.

But with Nimo being so young and the trails involving crossing winding roads with no shoulders and blind curves as well as hills, trees, creeks, etc., I wasn't sure I wanted Nimo to start his trail journey that way.  He was quite spooky under saddle and could be really reactive, so it honestly didn't feel safe.  I did ride him down the long driveway a few times, but for the most part, we stayed inside the arena.

By the time he was four, though, I had moved him to a new barn that was located on a huge property that included 11 different boarding facilities.  They were all connected by roads through the property and if you boarded at any of the facilities, you could ride through the whole property.  (Finding something like that at a reasonable distance from where we lived was amazing.  Regrettably, development has now taken the entire property and it no longer exists.)  I also had access to a pretty good sized field (maybe 10-15 acres) that I could ride in.  And, more importantly, a good friend also boarded there and had a nice safe horse that I could ride with.

So we went out around the property many times.  It was not without its adventures.  There was the time we were riding alongside the polo field and something spooked Nimo sideways.  I was posting at the trot and posted myself right over his shoulder and on to the ground.  I dislocated my shoulder doing that (it is the shoulder that is prone to dislocation, though, so it wasn't a huge surprise).  Then there was the time a herd of polo ponies galloped toward us as we rode past their field.  I got a levade out of Nimo at that point (but I stayed on!).  And then there was the time a tractor turned down the road toward us, giving Nimo a heart attack and provoking him into a 180 spin and headlong gallop for about a half mile before I got him stopped.  But we survived and I kept at it, either riding with my friend or by myself as I desperately tried to turn Nimo into the solid trail horse that I craved.

I ended up moving him to a new barn after about a year at this barn.  But the new place had some areas to ride around as well as some hay fields, so I still had places to ride outside the arena.  My trainer at the time strongly discouraged it, however, and I'm embarrassed to say that I did listen to him for awhile.  I think part of the reason was because riding Nimo outside the arena was scary.  He was spooky and his spooks often involved spinning and bolting, sometimes with bucking thrown in for good measure.  So instead of working on it every day, which is what I should have been doing, I stopped for awhile and only did it occasionally when I restarted.

It was a very dark time in my life.  I actually thought about selling Nimo at one point because I hated riding.  I hated all the schooling in the arena, which wasn't doing us much good.  I couldn't canter Nimo at all.  My trainer refused to work on it with me, saying that Nimo wasn't ready to canter because he still couldn't trot perfectly.  It was beyond frustrating for both Nimo and I, and when I reached my breaking point, it wasn't pretty.  It's possible that I yelled at my trainer and possibly brandished my whip at him after he made us trot a circle for what felt like the millionth time and chastised us once again for not riding it perfectly.

I started shopping for a new trainer, and moved Nimo once again.  The new trainer helped for awhile and the new barn also had a field that I could ride in plus it was located in a small community with homes and two other boarding barns, so I could ride the roads through the community too.  I also had access to trails, but to get to them required riding down the side of a busy highway for about a half mile.  I had work to do with Nimo if I wanted to be able to ride the trails.

There were a number of things that helped at this barn.  For one thing, someone was always driving an ATV too fast around the farm or through the barn.  Everywhere else I boarded discouraged that kind of behavior and focused on keeping everything really quiet so as not to spook the horses.  This place was full of activity, though.  So eventually Nimo stopped spooking at the ATV (although not before taking out a section of fencing when one spooked him while he had his head through the fence trying to get grass - he was fine but the fence was not).  And his field was right next to a busy road, so eventually he stopped spooking at vehicles, which is one problem I'd had before.  Plus there was a gun range close by, so he got used to constant gun fire (something which is important in Virginia because not a day goes by without somebody shooting something pretty much everywhere).

I gradually worked up the courage to start riding him around the farm and the community and we did even make it out to the trails once with another rider.  Her horse, regrettably, was not particularly excited about trail riding, though, and spooked and bolted, so that was the first and only time she would go with me.

The most important thing I did was to start canter work in the field I had access to.  It was long and narrow - about 15 acres.  Along its length I could expect barking dogs and my ultimate favorite - two Weimaraners fenced in with invisible fence.  I strongly believe that invisible fence should be illegal, especially around horses (but also because it's not that great for a lot of dog breeds), but it gave us the chance for Nimo to be surprised and "chased" by two dogs multiple times a week.  There was a lot of spooking and bolting and bucking, but I stayed on and kept at it even though I was terrified.  (Some boarders were unseated by their spooking horses, but the dogs' owners never thought to provide some kind of barrier along that part of their property line.)

Eventually I got Nimo to the point where he could canter a couple of big circles in the field without blowing up and freaking out.  I even took him on a couple of trail rides off the property.  Then I got pregnant, and cantering in fields was not something I felt safe doing, although I did ride through my second trimester.  I probably would have continued to ride, but it was July and then August and we had a terrible heat wave and I just worked on surviving those last few weeks.  (Those who have been pregnant probably know what I'm talking about.  I enjoyed being pregnant for the most part, but there comes a time when you are ready for the baby to come out, but the baby is not ready to come out, and those are some long days.)

My blog started when my daughter was about 7 months old, so I've written about most of what happened from that point on already and won't repeat it here.  But I wanted to give you some history and context.  Nimo has always struggled with canter.  I spent a lot of time being discouraged from even working on it.  He has also been difficult to ride outside the arena but over the years, he has become quite reliable, which means a lot to me.

But cantering outside the arena is not something we've ever been able to do much of no matter how confident he is on a mountain.  I can only remember a handful of times when he has cantered on a trail.  One time was the first time we rode at the Foxcatcher endurance ride.  He did it on his own and was amazing and lovely, but never repeated in quite that way again.  In fact, I ended up getting bucked off while Nimo was cantering at one "fun" ride we did maybe three years ago, and I got a concussion as a result.  At the time, I wondered if it was the energy of being with a group of horses cantering or if there could be a saddle fit issue (I was riding in my Specialized at the time).

Now, I suspect it was simply because Nimo is terribly uncomfortable cantering outside the arena for probably two reasons.  One is that cantering is hard for him and he probably feels unbalanced.  The other is that he is a worrier about Bad Things on the trail.  It took a long time for him to feel comfortable trotting on the trail too, and I think the extra speed of the canter combined with his lack of balance and his uncertainty about dangers lurking on the trail makes it difficult for him to canter.

You'll remember that I wrote that one main reason I turned to Science of Motion was because Nimo started to have problems cantering in the arena after we had achieved a certain level of success in that area.  I felt that our trainer at the time was pushing us to go too fast and it was exacerbating Nimo's balance issues.  Despite our work using SOM, though, I was never able to get Nimo to do more than 3-4 strides of collected canter.  Even a 20-meter circle seemed out of reach.  I'm not sure how to explain how frustrating that was!  I still can't quite grasp what has gone wrong for this poor horse, although I suspect not working on canter much at a younger age may be part of it.  Also, many Friesians (particularly the Dutch registered ones) aren't bred for cantering (or at least they weren't at the time I bought Nimo).  Now you can find some nice lines of Friesians where the angles of their shoulders and croups are a little less steep and better suited to riding.

So I mentioned some of our canter issues to my current instructor during one of our early ride out lessons.  I explained how it was bothering me and how someday, I would really love to just be able to canter in a field like normal horses and riders do.  She said, "Why don't you just do it today?"  I looked at her like she was a crazy person, and I'm sure I said something along those lines too.  I mean, you can't erase 12 years of defectiveness in one lesson.

Still, I figured avoiding the issue wasn't going to make it go away.  So I agreed that we could work on canter in this random field.  I mentally wished I was wearing bubble wrap to protect me from the fall I was sure would happen, but I sucked it up and told the hysterical, panicked part of my brain to shut up and asked my instructor for her guidance.

We started off by collecting the walk and putting Nimo into a shoulder-in on a circle.  That is much easier to do in an arena, by the way, but we did it.  And then, she worked with me on the timing of my request, and I think I may have used my whip a bit to tap when Nimo's inside hind leg was on the ground.  (I always ride with a whip on the trail, not so much for communicating with Nimo, but for moving tree branches out of the way and as a potential weapon against Bad Things.)

Anyway, it didn't take too many tries before Nimo happily cantered in a completely straight line down the length of the field.  He was nicely forward and balanced, but not too fast.  He was not spooky or wobbly.  There was no crow-hopping or bucking.  He just cantered like it was totally normal and not for 3-4 strides, but probably closer to 100.  We stopped only because a fence was in the way.

That probably doesn't sound like a big deal to you, and before I started riding Nimo, it wouldn't have been for me either.  But nothing like that has ever happened with Nimo.  When he cantered at the Foxcatcher ride, it was because he felt like doing it.  Which was fine.  I've always been happy to let him set his own pace on trails as long as it isn't too fast (or really slow...) for the footing or other conditions.  But this time, I asked him for it.  And he did it.  And it was a significant number of strides.  And it wasn't in an arena.  And it was beautiful.  And I wasn't scared.  I'm not sure it's possible to explain how it felt to achieve that canter after years and years and years and years of trying without success.  Of years and years and years and years of being anxious or even outright scared because of Nimo's constant spooking and bolting and bucking and general unpredictable nature.

I was able to contain my emotion about the canter for the rest of my lesson while still conveying my happiness about achieving it to my instructor.  But on the way home from the lesson, I cried.  Like most of the hour and 15 minute drive back to the barn.  Because all this emotion kept leaking through.  I had really resigned myself to the idea that Nimo was never going to canter outside the arena and that if by some miracle he did, it would never be for very long, just a few strides, and it might result in me getting a concussion.  But that ride gave me hope that maybe someday we can be normal, and canter down the trail without anxiety and simply enjoy being together.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

My 2 and a half hour lesson

I continued to ride in my "new" saddle for a few weeks to make sure that my initial impressions were correct.  I even got brave enough to try a conditioning ride in it with a friend.  We rode for about two and a half hours out at the Sky Meadow State Park.  One thing I wanted to check was to see if Nimo's back would show any signs of soreness after such a long ride over hilly terrain with a little bit of climbing thrown in.  It was a beastly hot and humid day, as August days are prone to be, so we didn't ride too fast, but we did do quite a bit of trotting on the easier parts of the trail.  Nimo was pretty tired, but not sore as far as I could tell, after the ride.  The one thing that was a bit of a problem, though, was that he wasn't keeping his back up at all.  I spent quite a bit of time berating myself for not noticing this problem before and wondering how on earth I was going to fix it.

The solution was one that my riding instructor had offered a very long time ago, not long after I started riding with her over two years ago.  And I had never taken her up on it because I always thought that the work we did in our lessons would somehow automatically transfer to our rides out on the trail and that my time and lesson money was best devoted to arena work.  Now that it was clear to me that our arena work wasn't transferring to the trails, I set up a time to do a "ride out" lesson.  Basically, I would trailer to the farm where my instructor kept her horse, and we would ride around the countryside together.

To be honest, I really wasn't sure what to expect from such a lesson.  But I knew I had to do something to figure out how to help Nimo move better out on the trail.  So on August 26, I got up painfully early (5:30!) so I could get Nimo and haul to meet my instructor.

Normally, my lessons are about an hour long, so I expected the same from this lesson, hoping we would be done before the heat of the day set in.  As it turned out, I had no idea what we were in store for.

The first surprise was that almost from the moment my seat hit the saddle, Nimo engaged his back.  He lifted it immediately.  Whether it was because he saw my instructor and associated that work with her or he was reacting or even following my instructor's horse (who is beautifully trained and lovely to watch), I can't say.  All I know is that what followed was not one hour, and not even two hours, but two and a half hours of bliss.

I never had to do anything to "help" Nimo move better.  He just did.  That isn't to say that we didn't work on anything; we did.  In fact, collected trot, even with my instructor's horse to follow, was too much for Nimo that day.  But we did get a lovely Pignot jog for short bits of trail and otherwise, we just walked.  It wasn't really a collected walk like what we would try for in the arena.  It was more like a medium walk, relative to the speed of the collected walk (as distinct from what you might see in the show ring).  But it was balanced and easy and it was all over hills, so Nimo got a good workout even at the slower pace.

I remember checking my watch at one point, wondering if we needed to turn around to get back to the barn so we didn't exceed what I expected to be an hour's time, only to discover we'd already been out on the trail for two hours!  We did begin heading back to the barn at that point, partly because the heat and humidity were rising and also because we really had been out long enough.

I'm not sure words can convey what that ride was like.  I don't think I'd ever understood before exactly how much mental energy (and probably physical too) that I'd been expending when I rode with other people.  I had been constantly monitoring Nimo's pace relative to the other horse (or horses) I was with, and I spent a lot of time trying to get Nimo to walk faster or trot slower or trot faster (if the other horse was cantering).  And of course, Nimo was out of balance the whole time, which was putting a strain on my body that I didn't even recognize.  So when I was able to ride with someone else whose horse was essentially doing the same thing my horse was at the same speed and pace, it took away the need for me to expend that energy.  Especially because Nimo was automatically engaging his own body (much like how I always thought he would before but never did).

Even though we'd ridden two and a half hours in heat that was approaching 90 degrees, I wasn't tired at all.  No part of my body was sore.  I didn't feel the need to get out of the saddle and walk like I usually do after rides of that length.  Even more importantly, my brain wasn't tired.  I actually felt like I could do other things that day instead of barely managing to get Nimo taken care of, driving back to the barn, unloading him and the tack, and crashing at home for the rest of the day, often with a headache.

It was like a whole new world had opened up for me, and it was heaven.  Now I knew how people could ride for hours and still feel cheerful and energized afterward!  Our pace had been much too slow to be considered a typical conditioning ride, and I had no idea how I would work toward that pace yet, but the idea that I could ride Nimo for hours and still feel like a human being afterward was mind-blowing and a game-changer.

The other thing that I noticed was that I no longer felt like I was in this weird purgatory when we walked down hills.  Many years ago, I remember reading an article (I think it might have been by Julie Goodnight in Trail Rider magazine) that said when you are trail riding, you should not lean backward when your horse goes down hills because it can unbalance them.  It sounded legitimate enough that I tried for years to follow that advice and eventually gave it up at the walk because I always felt like I was going to fall forward out of the saddle.  When Nimo trotted, I was fine maintaining an upright or even more forward position, but I never developed the coordination and stability to do it at the walk.  Guess what happened during this ride?  I was able to maintain an upright position without a problem.  In fact, I kept saying, "Oh my God!  I can't believe I haven't fallen out of the saddle!" so many times that my instructor asked me if there was something wrong with the way the saddle felt or if my girth needed to be tightened.  I had to explain that I had spent so many years feeling unstable and precariously balanced walking down hills that now that I didn't feel that way, I was sort of disbelieving reality.

The only thing that I regret was that I didn't do this kind of lesson much sooner.  But maybe it wouldn't have worked the way it did with my old saddle (or my old attitude).  It could be that Nimo had finally developed both the strength and understanding and was ready for this kind of ride, and he might not have been had I done it sooner.  I will never know for sure, but I do know that this lesson gave me hope that Nimo and I were going to be able to keep working together and find a way for us both to improve.

Friday, December 21, 2018

The $100 Saddle, part 2

I opened the box with quite a bit of self-lecturing about buying ridiculously-priced saddles off of eBay and how "you get what you pay for."  And I pulled the saddle out, sort of expecting a tangled mess.  It had shipped with a nice fleece cover and when I took the cover off, I found, much to my surprise, a saddle that looked like it had hardly been used.  Except for the various predation/bite marks that were just cosmetic damage, the saddle was in really good shape with nice leather.  The seat was even a sort of nubuck leather, which I like.  It had clearly survived the trip (and the use as an elephant seat) in good shape.

So things were looking OK.  I was still trying not to get too excited, though.  Just because the saddle was in good shape didn't mean that it would fit Nimo or me.  And right about then, I realized that I would need a new girth.  All-purpose saddles typically come with short billets (WHY?  WHY?  Why, for the love of all that is holy, would you make a saddle with such torture devices?  Especially for those of us with obscenely tall horses?)  So I paced the house waiting for my husband to come home so I could go to the tack store.  (I didn't want to bring my daughter because going to the tack store with her is an hour-long adventure at best.  I wanted to be in and out and head straight to the barn afterward.)  I gave him a rushed explanation when he walked in the door and bless his heart, even though he probably didn't understand a word I said, he told me to take whatever time I needed and he would make sure Gemma got dinner and entertainment for the evening.

When I got to the tack store, I realized I was woefully unprepared - the last time I owned an all-purpose saddle was for the horse I had before Nimo, so over 15 years ago.  I had no idea what size girth to get.  Luckily, a helpful sales person was there to show me what was available, give me her recommendation, and supply me with the formula for converting the short girth size to the long girth size.  I picked out a girth and headed out to the barn to try the saddle on Nimo.

Let me say at this point that there are some rules I've followed in the past when fitting saddles to Nimo, and that I was about to break them on purpose.  The big one that I followed in the past was that I looked to make sure the saddle seemed to fit when Nimo was standing still, in particular that the saddle was level.  I was now armed with knowledge that conflicted with that rule, and I was mentally preparing myself to violate it.  I was actually hoping to see the saddle fit in such a way that it looked like the cantle was too low when Nimo was standing still.  The purpose of the low cantle was to allow for Nimo's back to rise while riding and create a level saddle in motion rather than at a stand still.  If that bothers you, you may not want to read any further.  Or you may need a stiff drink to keep reading...

I got out to the barn and got Nimo from the field.  I explained the whole process to him.  And then I held my breath and put the saddle on his back.  It didn't fit.  Like not at all (based on my old theories, anyway).  While the tree seemed close to being wide enough, the whole thing sat so far out of level that I could hardly look at it.

Please try not to be too horrified by my dirty saddle, dirty saddle pad, and dirty horse.  I really hope to someday be able to clean all of them!  But I wanted to give you an idea even though this picture was taken a couple of days ago instead of at the time I first put it on Nimo.
But remember what I said about breaking my rules?  I got the girth out anyway.  I attached the girth on one side and then walked over to buckle it on the other side.  And I found out that the formula for converting short girth sizes to long girth sizes may need a little revision.  The girth was not even in the ball park.  I cried a little, and put the saddle away for the night.

The next morning (a Saturday), I headed back to the tack store to exchange the girth I got for one that was about 20 inches longer.  The first problem I ran into was that there was some sort of mega sale going on.  The parking lot was full, so parking in my truck was a nightmare.  Then the line in the store was so long, I figured I'd be there until Christmas.  But I wanted to try that saddle!

So I quickly determined that the biggest size girth is 56 inches (at least in stock).  Nimo probably needs a 62" girth.  I did find one that was 58 inches, but it didn't have an attachment to clip a breast collar on, which is a deal-breaker for me.  So I got the 56 inch girth and hoped the elastic was really stretchy.  The line moved pretty fast, and within half an hour, I was back on my way out to the barn.

I put the saddle back on, wondered if riser pads came in a 5" height, and buckled the girth to both sides with the aid of baling twine (I was seriously desperate at this point!).  Then I put Nimo's bridle on and headed to the arena.  When we got to the mounting block, I explained to Nimo that if he didn't like the saddle, I would prefer that he express his dislike in some way other than bucking me off.  I'm not sure he understood, though.

I sidled him up to the mounting block, put my left foot in the stirrup, and closed my eyes while swinging my right leg over the saddle.  I sat and waited.  No reaction from Nimo.  I assessed how the saddle felt.  Like I was sitting uphill, but otherwise stable.  I asked Nimo to walk.  He did.  No drama.  We walked around for awhile and my lower back was definitely uncomfortable because of the angle, but otherwise the saddle was doing OK.  I asked Nimo to trot.  He trotted.  No bucking.  No head tossing.  No fussing.  Just trotting.  After about 20 minutes, I called it good and got off.

I wasn't ready to commit to the saddle just yet, though.  I needed to resolve the way it was sitting, at least temporarily.  So here is my thought process.  I've already posted about Nimo's topline.  Back in July, it was worse.  His spine was more prominent.  After riding in the saddle, it had settled a bit, and it didn't look quite as bad.  I could sort of imagine that if Nimo had the proper muscling on his topline, the saddle might actually fit pretty well.  I'm sure you've heard the saddle fitting rule that you fit the saddle to the horse you have, not the horse you imagine you could have.  Well, remember how I said I was going to be breaking the rules?

The next day I searched my garage and pulled out an old Mattes half pad with spaces for inserts and then cut up some Thinline material that I had left over from a previous effort and shimmed the middle and back of the pad.  I doubled the shims, so that they were about a half inch thick.  Then I put that shimmed pad on over a thin cotton one and got on again.  And, it wasn't too bad.  I could still feel the saddle was not level, but it was better and I knew Nimo wasn't engaging his back.  I wasn't asking him to at that point because I wanted both of us to adjust to the saddle first.

For this second ride, I rode about 30 minutes and did get some lift from Nimo's back.  And guess what?  I had a level saddle.  So, with the shims and proper riding, I could get the saddle to work.

You are probably wondering why I didn't just try a different saddle or get a professional to help me.  And those are valid questions.  The thing is that I've been following a lot of rules espoused by people who are just repeating what they read in a book or were told by a trainer.  I'VE been following a lot of those rules for the same reason.  Participating in the SOM class has made me see that sometimes those rules are based on outdated information or misunderstandings.  When it comes to saddle fit, I wanted to move outside the framework I had been operating in for the last 30 odd years.

You might be familiar with the saying that if you keep doing what you've always done, you'll keep getting what you've always gotten.  I don't want to keep getting what I've always gotten.  I want to be a better rider, and I want to help Nimo become a stronger horse.  To do that, I felt like I needed to pay attention to what Jean Luc Cornille was saying in his class about saddles being fitted to a horse in motion, about fitting a saddle to how the horse will develop, not necessarily the horse you have, about saddles often being fitted with trees that are too wide, about saddles that are unstable or that otherwise interfere with the rider.  And I also felt like I needed to push myself to see things differently and to feel things differently.

When I rode in this saddle, I could instantly tell when Nimo's back was where it should be and when it wasn't.  That isn't something I've ever been able to do before.

And then there is the fact that I feel more stable and secure in this tiny postage stamp of a saddle than I ever did in any of the other saddles I've ridden Nimo in.  I really thought that it would be scary to ride in an all-purpose saddle because there would be nothing to hold me in.  But it was the opposite.  I felt like I could finally get my leg on his side (having a saddle with a narrower twist is so wonderful!) and that immediately made me feel more secure.

But I did have one more thing I wanted to add to make the picture complete - a sheepskin saddle cover.  I've heard so many endurance riders swear by them but I really didn't feel like I needed one with my last saddle.  In this case, I decided to give it a try because I thought the sheepskin would accomplish two things.  First, it would add some grip to the saddle.  I have never liked the typical English smooth leather seats and after having two saddles with suede seats, I wanted something close to that for this saddle.  Second, it would hopefully add some cushioning.  I immediately missed the comfort of the treeless saddle, but as my instructor has pointed out, riding isn't a leisure activity.  It is an athletic one, and I need to be functioning more like an athlete in the saddle.  But that doesn't mean I can't have some level of comfort!

So here's a picture of the new set up (for arena schooling):

The sheepskin cover is by JMS, the stirrup leathers are my biothane leathers from Specialized that I've been using for probably about four years, the stirrups are the E-Z Ride Aluminum Ultimate Endurance Stirrups that I will not ride without, the half saddle pad is by Thinline, the cotton pad is by Dover, and the girth is by Professional's Choice.  I've been using this set of tack for almost five months and I like pretty much everything about it.  The sheepskin cover, in particular, will have to be pried from my cold, dead hands because I will never ride in another saddle without it.  It does give extra cushion and grip plus now that it is cold, it adds a huge amount of warmth (without being too hot in the summer).

So that is the story of how I ended up with a $100 saddle for Nimo.  It probably isn't as good as the Macel Samba, but it is a lot better than what I had.  Getting this saddle definitely helped us break free from the plateau we'd been on and I'm excited to tell you about how our riding has progressed over the past few months!