Saturday, June 8, 2019

Fear and Riding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Riding with My Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so our journey continues...

Monday, May 20, 2019

Science of Motion Clinic April 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nimo and I are working on bend


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 13, 2019

Blue Ridge Hunt Club Bluebell Ride

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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
leg.

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
correctly.

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.