Boring is a Very Good Thing

Yesterday the weather was a little less bone-chilling, so I went out for a short ride. The goal at this point is to have lots and lots of short, successful, and completely uneventful rides. And this one turned out to be exactly according to plan.

I’ve been working a bit on getting Diego to stand nicely when asked. So when I brought him out, I asked him to stand while I got on. Then stand while I put my feet in the stirrups and flapped them around a bit. And then stand for a minute more. I am using positive reinforcement (clicker training) to reward him for not moving. The video shows how very calmly he waited for his cue to move.

Anastasija was riding Ares, and she again carried the dressage whip. This time though, she accidentally touched him with it during a moment of disharmony. She handled it perfectly, not panicking when he spooked forward. She dropped the whip and eased him up without clutching and he settled down quickly. So that was very nicely done on her part.

Diego watched the spook with no concern at all. Nor did he react when Taz the cat bolted across in front of us. I was pretty impressed. The only bad thing he did was when we started looping out into the front field. He wanted to go off and explore the entire field and I had to really insist that we keep turning back towards home. But I wanted to make sure that we in no way pushed the envelope. I am trying to guarantee easy, relaxed rides. So he practices being good and develops confidence in himself and in me. It’s what Ares needs too. Ana has been trying to ride him out alone while my elbow has been healing, and he’s really not confident enough for that. So these easy, boring rides are good for both horses.

Today we had freezing rain, so no riding. Probably not for the next few days either. But at least it gave me time to edit so you are now faced with a short boring video instead of a long boring video 🙂

Back in the Saddle

Well, I waited as long as I could. But I’ve been getting pretty cranky about not being able to ride. So yesterday I had Anastasia get on my problem child to make sure he was calm and happy about being ridden. He walked quietly without any sign of stress. So today, we did the same thing again. Tacked him up, brought him out and had Anastasija get on him for a few minutes. He stood like a rock, very relaxed for mounting. Once she was on though, he was really kind of bad. Ignored Ana and followed me like a puppy. I finally said “okay, forget it… I will just get on him myself”. So I did.

"Hey! Why are you backing up???"
“Hey! Why are you backing up???”
"Got cookies?"
“Got cookies?”

It was a total non-event really. We ambled around in the round pen for a while. Then walked around outside the round pen. Diego was quite perfect. I think all the ground driving and miscellaneous other ground work has really relaxed him. His head stayed nice and low, and he didn’t startle at anything, or tense up, or rush even for a second. I didn’t ask much of him mind you… lots of big circles, a few small circles, halts, a few steps of back up, and one step of sidepass. All of which he managed with a great deal of good cheer and no resistance at all.

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My elbow held up fine of course. Since he was so relaxed, there was no stress on the joint. And I was ridiculously happy to be back on a horse 🙂 It’s been just under five months since I’ve ridden. Way way WAY too long. I wore my helmet, and my crash vest (not that either of those can protect an elbow, but…). I was glad to find that I was not at all tense. So my confidence seems pretty much undented. So far at least.

Nice and relaxed
Nice and relaxed

Veronica took the pics, and when I reviewed them I saw that my bad old habit of collapsing my left side has returned with a vengeance. So that’s going to take a bit of focus to overcome. Luckily, there is another Becky Hart Centered Riding Clinic coming up in April, and we are signed up for that already. I’m going to need that. And it will be good for Diego as well. He needs lots of that sort of training.

Yep... collapsing that left side again.
Yep… collapsing that left side again.

Ana rode Ares too, and this time I gave her a dressage whip to carry. With instructions NOT to use it. Just carry it. He’s a super sensitive guy, and always on high alert for humans who want to kill him. But he’s been getting a lot more confident lately and that has morphed into testing the limits to his human’s patience. He sometimes gets a little sticky about going forward when she asks. Or, his cutest trick, going home. At a walk or slow jog, but relentlessly GOING HOME when he thinks the trail ride should be over. Anyway, the dressage whip put a whole new face on Ares. He was instantly far more responsive. “Okey dokey” he said to Ana… “I’m going forward, no problem!” She asked me when she should use the whip, and I sort of laughed. “Likely never”. I think if she actually used it, he’d melt down completely. All he needs is to know it’s in her hand. Instant respect for the human. And I think Ana was pretty relieved to discover she didn’t have to use it.

Ana and Ares
Ana and Ares

Veronica did some more driving with Ella. Since Ella never raced, just jogged at slow speeds on the training track, she’s as placid and steady as can be in harness. Well… except for the fact that there were some clumps of half dead but possibly still delicious grass under her feet, and with all snow melted at the moment, the temptation was a bit too much for her a few times. Veronica practiced keeping light and steady contact on both lines. Which sounds easy, but is not at all simple to maintain. She improved considerably today though, and they started to look more like they were in harmony towards the end of the session.

Ella, patiently waiting for Veronica to sort out the lines.
Ella, patiently waiting for Veronica to sort out the lines.

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So a very good day for everyone 🙂

Venice For One Thing, My Elbow for Another

After a wicked bout of flu, which killed all my ambition for a while, I have gotten back to working with Venice. She went backwards of course. She goes feral very quickly if I don’t spend time with her every single day.

The first session back was quite alarming. She panicked about the rope and went careening around the stall. Right back to wild mustang status. But after a few days of inching our way back to where we were before I lost my oomph, today was good. I worked with her twice today. Once this morning, and again this evening.

This morning, instead of scratching her, I started gently patting her neck with my open hand and gradually increased the pressure. Very terrifying for her at first. It was like seeing electric shocks go through her at every touch. But eventually her neurons stopped firing wildly and she took a big sigh and relaxed… as much as Venice ever really relaxes anyway. I was able to touch her from just behind her ear to about mid-back. Which was where we had stopped a couple of weeks ago.

Tonight I managed to put my hand on her jowl. That’s a big one for her. She is very alarmed about anything coming near her face. So that was a no-go zone. We worked it out that I would stand beside her and slide my hand up her neck to her jowl. She would immediately stretch her head away from me. And I would wait. When she turned her head back towards me I would lighten the pressure of my hand and eventually, when she got her nose pointing forward again, I’d remove my hand. She is always so relieved when I take my hand off that she reaches towards me with her nose for a moment to say thanks.

Then, because it drives me mad every time I look at her, I gently started pulling the snarls out of her mane. I thought she’d lose her mind over that for sure. But after a tiny moment of alarm, she stood for it. She has massive long snarls that are sort of looped together in a complicated almost braid. Or macrame, maybe. She’s already lost a small chunk of mane where one of the snarls caught on something and got yanked out. So I stood there for a good half hour, gently unlooping the snarls. I thought it would be hours of work to get it done. But I got the majority of the bad snarls out, and just have some ringlets left to work through. I think maybe those knots were pulling uncomfortably on her neck, because she actually seemed a bit relieved to have them fixed up a bit. She shook it all out afterwards and gave a big sigh. Tomorrow I think I’ll try to put some Cowboy Magic in it and maybe even try a comb.

So again we’ve made a bit of progress. We are still stuck at the rope around the neck stage though. Since I can’t yet touch her head, I haven’t got a halter on her. That will be a bit of a trick to manage I suspect.

I drove Diego in long reins all around the back field yesterday. He was very good. Quite pleased to be out. And my elbow really held up to it well. Driving him on the driveway is easier because the footing is solid and even. Going around the outside of a grassy field with a bit of mud (though mostly it was frozen) was a bit more of a challenge. I was surprised though that even with a couple of jolts (mostly me being graceless and tripping over clumps of frozen grass) it didn’t hurt. He’s pretty soft-mouthed mind you. So it’s not like he was pulling on me.

Had a doctor’s appointment today. He says I can go back to work in mid-February. 🙂

And I started making noises to my therapist about riding again sometime in the near future. And she did not get alarmed. I took that as a good sign. I still need a bit more strength in the arm before I try it. But the joint is more stable now, and I can feel the improvement in muscle tone. Chrystal is plotting to get me on the ancient Quarter Horse that she has living at her place next time I’m over there. She figures he wouldn’t spook if you set him on fire.

Kitten Report

The little stray kitten is doing pretty well today. But the first few days were a bit rocky. She was exhausted for days after she got here. She was always friendly, but had no energy for playing at all. She’d eat, drink, use the kitten facilities, and go right back to sleep. That went on for five days straight, and I started getting quite worried when I noticed late one night that there was some rattly noises coming from her chest that were not purrs. I decided that if she were not better by morning, I was taking her to the vet. But lo and behold, yesterday morning she woke up bouncing. And she’s been bouncing ever since.

I’ll keep watching her closely, because I suspect she might have had a touch of pneumonia from her polar expedition. But she sure has improved a lot. Today she was tempted by Taz the Cat’s twitching tail. He watched her stalk towards it. Allowed a couple of pounces. But then I think she tried biting down. He (rather gently) swatted her and hissed. It wasn’t much of an effort on his part. But her eyes got huge and she scooted backwards. He’s a big sturdy cat and must be intimidating to her tiny little self. He’s being quite tolerant about her though. An easy-going, good natured cat. The only real problem he’s having with this kitten business is that my lap is supposed to be reserved for him. It puts a bit of a kink in his tail when he notices she’s there again.

Lessons from the Dressage World

I happened upon some dressage videos on Youtube the other day. I am not a dressage rider, and make no representations of expertise. So this post is not a critique or an expression of any opinion classical vs. competition dressage, rollkur, or any of those other controversies that I have no business commenting upon.

However, I really learned some interesting things about riding skills watching these videos. I am just going to present them in the order that I watched them first of all.

A series of clips of Totilas and Edward Gal in competition, set to Lady Gaga’s Born This Way.

A stallion show presentation of Totilas ridden by Matthias Rath a year or two after the clips in the first video.

A critique of the riding styles of Edward Gal and Matthias Rath by a Alex Gerding, a German dressage coach and Russ Edgington, an American biomechanics specialist. There’s more info about them on their website at Professional Horse Services. This video is really long (over an hour), but well worth it.

There are a number of controversies involved in this story. Totilas was unexpectedly sold by his Dutch owners after the 2010 World Equestrian Games to new German owners and was assigned to Matthias Rath, a much younger and less experienced rider than Gal. Edward Gal rode for some time with Anky Van Grunsven in Holland. She apparently uses Rollkur, which is a highly controversial method of hyperflexing a horse’s neck during training. And that is a whole separate topic on its own which I am not going into here. But look it up if you are interested. Matthias Rath has rather obviously started using Rollkur methods since the disaster of that second video. So neither rider is free of those accusations.

If you watch the third video, these two coaches give a very detailed breakdown of the riding styles of Gal and Rath. This is not about the basic skills of “heels down” etc. This is about how a rider tunes themself to a particular horse. And how they use the aids to support the horse through various movements. The two riders are very different in their styles, and Totilas who is a World Champion dressage horse (three gold medals at the 2010 WEG and the world record highest dressage score of 92.50%), responds very differently to each of them.

Matthias Rath is a strong rider (and I sure hope he has healthy self-esteem, because this video has been seen by a LOT of people!). When the horse spooks, the commentators note that he sits deep, takes a strong hold, and frames with his leg. Which they call a “triple confinement”. Which the horse reacts badly to because he’s used to a totally different riding style. Alex Gerding points out at one point that Rath is riding the horse that he wants, not the horse that he’s actually on. That’s an interesting thing to reflect on. Horses are individuals, so there is not one correct way to ride.

This is something I went through with King in the early days of conflict that I had with him. I am physically quite a strong rider. I used a lot of leg, and my hands have always been too strong. So I was using exactly that “triple confinement” method with King, who is a powerful, light-moving, and very emotional horse, causing highly explosive situations. Over time I did relax and learn to go with the movement more and be lighter in my response. As I lightened up, King did too. It took a long time to get that through to me though. Even when I knew what I was doing wrong, I couldn’t (and occasionally still can’t) overcome that innate response to stress of clamping down hard.

Rath is a high-level dressage rider. He has skills that I will never have. So it’s rather intimidating to see how badly a horse can react to a rider of that skill level. And also to realize how far we ALL have to go to be truly great riders.

Edward Gal’s style is amazingly elegant and quiet. His shoulders barely move, but his hips follow the horse easily. I know that being stiff through my lower body is a weakness of mine (and it’s not improving with age!), and this last video, though very long was really worth watching to get an understanding of why that is important. They also go into quite a bit of detail on how Gal supports the horse’s balance with his reins and his seat. That sort of finesse is far beyond what I’m capable of. But it’s given me renewed motivation to work harder at it.

There is another Becky Hart Centered Riding Clinic in early April, which I will be going to. I learned a lot at last year’s clinic. So I am looking forward to this one even more. I’ll never be an Edward Gal, or even a Matthias Rath (and given the Rollkur issues, I am not exactly interested in that anyway). But I can be better than I am.