Saturday, March 27, 2010

Why Horses?

I was thinking the other day, as I spent the evening hanging out at the barn with my dad, about how much this "horse thing" means to me. It was really beautiful out there, warm and sunny and quiet. I took McKinna out for a hack down the road and up over the hill, where we met a Horse Eating Tree Stump of Death (hilarious because she rarely spooks - I actually had to lead her past it), then a few lovely relaxed canters up the hill.

This is good for me in so many ways. Sometimes, I wonder what it would be like if I gave it up. If I had every evening free - no more 4:30 to 8 being taken up on weeknights, no more weekends swallowed by clinics, no more 90% of my paycheck going toward the horses.

Personally, I'd be bored to death. I wish I'd had the foresight to develop a cheaper obsession when I was, oh, two years old or whenever it was that I decided I loved horses...but since I didn't, I'm stuck with it.

I love it.

Going to the barn is like walking into a cloud of not-worry. Well, restricted worries: my thoughts revolve around the horses, what we're doing and what I am working on in training and new ideas. But it seems like it is physically impossible for me to be stressed about ordinary life while I'm out there. A couple years ago, a boyfriend broke up with me and I was completely miserable--but not at the barn. It was like I physically couldn't think about how sad I was.

We had good times when we were at that barn. I think my favorite memory of that place was the barbecue we had one summer: the barn owners, their kids, and all the boarders got together at the barn. We set up a bunch of picnic tables. The owners slaughtered one of the pigs their kids had raised for 4-H, dug a big pit in the outdoor dirt arena, and slow-cooked the entire pig in the pit. I think that was also the first time I ever tried apple pie with extra-sharp cheddar cheese, yum.

Another time, a group of us - actually, many of the same people who boarded at that barn and went to the barbecue - went schooling at Inavale. We all went and rode the cross-country fences, had a great time splashing through the water complex, and came back to the trailers to hang out. That day we were the only visitors parked in the pasture they use for parking, so we just closed the pasture and let the horses loose to graze while we had a picnic in the shade of a huge oak tree. Brie cheese and soft bread with a perfectly crunchy crust, big juicy cheeseburgers on the grill, chocolate-dipped strawberries, dripping slices of watermelon. I think we arrived at 10 or so and didn't leave until evening feeding, it was so beautiful out there. The barn owners came and chatted with us for awhile on their feeding rounds. (This is one of the reasons I love Inavale: the people there are wonderful.)

Community is one of the best parts of the horse world. Don't get me wrong, I love the individual challenge and concentration of riding and training. But off the horse, it doesn't get any better than hanging out with friends. The eventing community (well, and Pony Club) is what I know and love best. Everyone is always ready to have a party at a competition or camp - someone has a barbecue, someone has wine, everyone has lots of great food and stories. Most times a couple people have guitars, too.

Pony Club is a blast because I get to hang out with horse kids. I grew up reading the Saddle Club and the Thoroughbred series, so now I get to belatedly live out my childhood dreams! The younger kids are a really good group, and they're a lot of fun at rallies. I think it's very cool that all these girls are growing up learning not just how to ride, but about veterinary care, how to manage a stable, and how to teach lessons. When I go to activities like the ABC Retreat or Quiz Rally, I get to meet and spend time with girls my own age, which I don't always get to do. (Not to mention how incredibly much Pony Club has helped me improve my riding over the last year and a half.)

It's just...I love horses, you know? That's what it comes down to and why I don't think I'll ever quit. I am always daydreaming about my next long hack, what I'm going to work on in my next dressage school, how it's going to feel when McKinna and I come out of the start box at our first recognized event ever this summer. I look at my calendar for the spring term and see only two open weekends, and I know this spring and summer is going to be crazy busy - but I wouldn't have it any other way.

PS: I just re-discovered this picture of McKinna. It was taken the day after we got her, and OMG she was a porker! Look at that neck! And her TAIL!

Contrast that tail with THIS one, which is pretty much how her tail always is...

All we do is stick it in a tail bag and wash it whenever we're about to go somewhere. Wish her mane would grow a little thicker, though.

That's all for today!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Do The Shuffle!

Have I mentioned that McKinna's just kickass to ride? Because she's pretty kickass to ride.

I went to a jumping clinic on Sunday with a trainer I haven't ridden with before. Our club put on the clinic to help prepare for the show jumping rally, which is coming up in a couple weeks.

I got to ride with the Big Girls - the C-2s in our club - in the 3' group. McKinna was the only horse there who wasn't a dark bay, but at least she wasn't the only little horse. One of the other mares in my group is around McKinna's height and tends to be pretty similar: fiery, quick, and killer form over the fences.

The ride went great. I have lots of video thanks to my awesome parents, so I will put together a clip and stick it up here. The course included a four-stride, a five-stride, a two-stride, a single end fence, a single (BIG) swedish oxer, and a single skinny low brick wall on a turn. McKinna didn't blink at anything, including these really cool white vinyl herringbone fillers, an astroturf-covered brush box, and bright panels. In fact, the only issue we had was the first time we approached a fence directly on the rail: the ring is fenced and covered but open on the sides, and McKinna was so busy looking outside that she didn't realize there was a fence there!

So she stopped, said "Well why didn't you tell me there was a fence there?" and jumped foot-perfect the rest of the time.

On the other hand, it's now confirmed: McKinna has The Shuffle.

Both at my lesson with my regular instructor on Saturday last week and at the clinic, I heard some variation of, "It's impressive that she jumps so well and makes it look so easy when her canter is that bad!"


She does have rhythm, I know she does. McKinna is perfectly capable of picking herself up in a rolling, three-beat, balanced canter. But when she's nervous, or tired, or the footing is deep, she wants to just shuffle along with her legs flailing and her back not moving much. Then she pulls a textbook, beautiful jump out of that, then comes straight back to the shuffle.

(It's actually kind of comical to listen to the audio from the clinic. Almost every time I jumped, the trainer commented on how amazing it was that McKinna could be so effortless over the fences with THAT canter.)

But I know it's in there, so that's what we will be working on. At my dressage lesson with Leslie last week, we agreed that she needs more stretching and softening since she gets high in the front end and compact so easily. Lots of walking and trotting on a slightly longer rein, asking her to stretch down a little more - not peanut-rolling, but fully releasing through the base of the neck and her back. As for canter work, where she seems bent on charging into the canter if you ask for suppleness or else she just sticks her neck up, Leslie said to not worry too much about the transition for now. That will come with strength and relaxation in the canter.

So don't worry about the transition, just ask quietly. Do short periods of canter work, asking her to really supple and stretch down and lift her back, then back to trot to stretch and relax for as long as necessary. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I think that will work better than bullying her through the transition. Sometimes, a firm shove is what McKinna really needs because she's just being silly. But with this I think it is genuinely difficult for her, and when you force it she just gets anxious and flail-shuffles even more.

I did get a beautiful canter outside the other day. There is a three-feet-wide strip of grass that runs along the road to the outside of the hayfield fence, and it was mown the other day. It is on a mild uphill. So, on a hunch, I asked McKinna quietly for the canter. We cantered all the way up in rhythm, and she really stretched down and lifted her back. I think the incline helps balance and slow her, so she doesn't have to worry about it as much. Will definitely continue to try this.

I am also going to work in some canter cavaletti. My plan is: dressage work, especially up the hill, to work on softening/relaxing/stretching at the canter, not worrying as much about rhythm or picking up the feet. Jumping work over canter poles and canter cavaletti to work on rhythm and picking up the feet, not worrying so much about stretching and softening. I think asking for all of it at once is too much right now, but my hope is that by building up the pieces separately, I can eventually put them together. Part of it is a strength thing so this will come too.

The other confounding issue is saddle fit, grumble, mutter. Her jumping saddle fits quite well I think and tends to stay where it should be. Her dressage saddle, while it fits her wonderfully, wants to ride forward. Her girth groove is pretty far forward and tends to just suck the saddle up onto the back of her shoulders, which of course would irritate her when she's trying to use her range of motion to canter. So I am experimenting a bit. Dressage saddle with my Thinline half pad and regular square pad tends to slide. Dressage saddle with regular square pad and sheepskin half pad I borrowed from Leslie tends to slide. Next to try: Dressage saddle naked, dressage saddle with just square pad (haven't done that in awhile and can't remember if it works), dressage saddle with just sheepskin half pad, dressage saddle with square pad and some sort of non-stick something. Maybe those grippy rubber things you use under bathroom mats? Thin, likely to not affect saddle fit, might help.


The shuffle aside, McKinna has been just so fun. She's so easygoing about jumping now. I don't know where or when it happened, but she is steady to fences. All I do is sit there, get a decent canter, and chill out while she finds her distance, doing the occasional half-halt or adding impulsion down a line. I love it.

Pandora has also been doing well, though she's had quiet a few days off due to finals and such. Lesson last night went very well, and we have had some interest in her from the ads we've put up. Update for her soon - I will be back on a regular posting track now that last term is over! I pulled straight A's for the term and now that I'm done with OChem I have a huge weight off my shoulders. Next term: no class on Fridays. Awww yeah.

Dressage lesson with McKinna tomorrow, then Thursday I'm hauling her over to another Pony Clubber's place (the one in my group with the other little mare), where we are going to work on canter poles together since our horses need it!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

I know, I know...

I've been pretty much MIA for a bit, and I'm sorry. I am in the midst of some serious cramming for my OChem exam tomorrow (LAST ONE EVER, YAY!). Basically all I do is study, eat, sleep, and go out to the barn for a break.

The good news is, my lessons have still been great. Here is a video from my jumping lesson on Saturday with McKinna. Once I'm done with my exam, I will tell you all about the lesson and my lesson on Monday with Pandora. Deal? Deal.

This is McKinna jumping a 2'9 to 3' course, including some seriously skinny skinnies, a big wide oxer, and a fake liverpool. Basically, my instructor says she's awesome, and she jumps incredibly well for how badly unbalanced her canter is right now (heehee), and once she actually gets a strong balanced canter she'll be even more kickass.

She's so fun to ride over fences. Super smooth over the jump, she just skips over and it feels like nothing. It's a blast. Okay, I need to stop writing and go back to studying. I promise I will give you the play-by-play of the lesson soon!

Saturday, March 6, 2010


Oh goodness. Lately I have been doing too much horse stuff to have any time to write about it! Which is a good thing, I suppose. Lessons twice a week, out at the barn pretty much every evening, Pony Club stuff most Fridays. I'm getting worn out, though, and I'm definitely ready to sell Pandora so I can focus my time on McKinna.

In no particular order, here's a bunch of updates.

Lesson updates: Pandora and McKinna

Both of the girls are making so much progress. I ride in a jumping lesson on Mondays and a dressage lesson on Wednesdays, alternating horses. Pandora is learning to soften and carry herself, which can be difficult for her. It can be frustrating for me sometimes, especially since that aspect of dressage is so easy for McKinna. But a few nights ago I watched video from our first dressage lesson and then from our most recent one, and the difference is huge already.

Jumping lessons are so much fun. I and another girl ride with a local eventing trainer, and she's great. She makes up good courses and isn't shy about throwing in bending lines or more difficult questions, which is a great challenge that so far both of the horses have enjoyed. This week we did some trotting and cantering over a crossrail without stirrups - "I guarantee you will not lean forward!" is what she said. Ha.

Really, though, she was right. Trotting the fence felt great and gave me a really good feel for the perfect place for my body. Cantering was a little different. The jump itself was fine but I kept slamming my crotch into the saddle on landing, and I couldn't figure out why. After watching me, trainer explained: apparently my back is nice and flat over the jump, but when I land I want to rock my hips forward and round my back, thus slamming myself into the we worked on that a little.

McKinna is starting to develop a Real Canter, which is so exciting for me. She's never really had one before, just glimpses. It's not that she doesn't's just that her canter is fast, and strung out, and kinda hollow-backed. We are getting to the point in our dressage lessons where, for a few strides at a time, I can relax my leg pressure and just follow the motion. When she softens her jaw and uses her hind end, I can feel her back come up beneath me. She can only hold it for a little bit, but we're getting there.

Speaking of trainers, riding with only one trainer (or in my case two, one for dressage and one for jumping) has been incredibly interesting. What a HUGE difference it makes to ride regularly, in private or semiprivate lessons, with the same trainer. I feel like my riding and my horses have improved by leaps and bounds in the last two months, and it's a great feeling.

Selling Pandora Update:

I'm ready for it. I love her dearly, and she's a great horse. It's just that mentally, I've already made the transition: McKinna is my main horse, she is who I am setting goals for, she will be my primary partner for the next two and a half years. I will be sad to see Pandora go - especially because we've made so much progress and she's such a sweet girl - but I am ready to have the time and money to focus on one horse.

We have a website set up with some pictures and video, and we're ready to send it out to the Pony Club mailing lists now. We'll see if we can sell her to a PC family by word of mouth first, but if not, we'll put her up on Dreamhorse and the like. Here's hoping that we find a perfect match in short order!


I am getting really excited for this year. I am for sure going to ride at the Inavale recognized HT this year - I'm planning on going Novice with McKinna. If I can afford it, I'd love to make it to another event sometime in August or September. I feel so limited because my only experience at HTs is at Inavale! It's a great facility, but I want to see more.

On that note, I've talked to my eventing trainer and hopefully I will be tagging along with her to several events this spring/summer/fall to groom for her. What better way to learn to do all of it than to help out with someone who really knows what she's doing?

Health Notes (warning, poop talk!):

The girls have been pretty healthy. McKinna has had this weird off-and-on thing where something in her digestive system gets irritated. She doesn't get loose stool, but she will have gas accompanied by some manure-liquid, then a bit later some normal droppings. It doesn't seem to bother her, for the most part. We gave them a PowerPak a few weeks ago and started her on some ulcer-healing supplements, and all seemed to be going well, but she's been a bit runny the past few days.

On the other hand, in the past few days we've asked the barn owner to begin turning them out with separate groups so we can weaken their bond a bit in preparation for Pandora leaving. So the stress of that might be what's upsetting her system again.

Either way, we're planning to buy some tubes of GastroGard and administer it to her in the days surrounding Pandora's exit, just in case.

Coming Up Soon:

We are just getting into the busy season for horse stuff. This month is fairly laid-back with a jumping clinic and then an eventing derby clinic. In April, I'm taking McKinna to the Show Jumping Rally - it is going to be held at DevonWood Equestrian Center, which from what I hear is an incredibly nice facility. We'll be doing the 2'9 - 3' division.

Then on May 1st is the tentative date for my C-2 rating - woohoo! Later in May comes a Standards and Ratings clinic, which is put on so the clinician can explain the Standards and Ratings of Pony Club to the observers. Our club is hosting, so we get to be the guinea pigs. It's not a lesson per se, but the clinician discusses how your riding relates to the Standards. Then the first weekend in June is an event derby at Inavale, then the Horse Trials at the end of the month. Championships for Quiz are in August.

Plus I'm sure more will pop up as we go along!

At any rate, it is shaping up to be a fun and exciting season.

Whew, big update. Finals are next week and after that I should be back to posting regularly.
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